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Cokie and Steven V. Roberts: Keeping the president honest

By Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

As Donald Trump marks his first year in office, this question is more critical and consequential than ever: How should the media be covering the president?

There’s no doubt that Trump has changed the rules of the game. He fabricates repeatedly and never apologizes. His vast social media network enables him to communicate directly with his supporters. He withholds critical information that other presidents have routinely released, like his taxes.

And he regularly attacks the credibility of the press, even threatening to tighten libel laws that help protect journalistic independence.

The president’s aim is clear: to undermine an institution that is empowered by the First Amendment to hold him, and politicians of all stripes, accountable for their actions.

Sen. John McCain criticized Trump’s campaign in the Washington Post: “Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely.”

Journalists are fighting back. They’ve taken a more robust and aggressive stance in covering the Trump White House, and that’s a good thing. The voting public deserves to know that what the president tweets at midnight, or rants at a rally, is not the whole story.

One key moment came in September 2016, when The New York Times used the word “lie” in a story about Trump’s promotion of the “birther” conspiracy. NPR asked Times Editor Dean Baquet, “Has something changed in the way the paper covers and writes about Trump?” And Baquet answered, “Yes, the simple answer is yes.” Trump “sort of crossed a little bit of a line,” explained Baquet, and what he said “was just demonstrably a lie. … And I think we owed it to our readers to just call it out for what it was.”

Baquet was right about that. So were the news organizations that labeled Trump a “racist” for favoring immigration from predominantly white countries like Norway over predominantly dark-skinned nations in Africa and the Caribbean.

But if journalists are going to be more combative and confrontational, they have to be especially careful and self-critical. As political analyst Jeff Greenfield told CNN, any mistake is like “handing a sword” to Trump and his supporters who are looking for the slightest pretext to assail the media.

Peter Baker, the Times’ White House correspondent, adds, “Even small mistakes are used to undercut the entire credibility of the press.”

The risks for the media are considerable. Incendiary words like “lie” and “racist” have to be used rarely and precisely, saved for the president’s most egregious and destructive comments. Otherwise, words lose their power and journalists lose their credibility.

And as Baker warns, even small mistakes have to be avoided at all costs. For example: During the first days of the Trump administration, Zeke Miller of Time magazine was part of a press pool ushered briefly into the Oval Office. He did not see a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. that had been prominently displayed during Barack Obama’s tenure, so he tweeted that Trump had removed it. He was wrong; the bust was merely obscured by a door. But instead of waiting and asking a White House staffer for an explanation, he jumped to a conclusion — and handed Trump a “sword” to use against the press.

White House press aide (at the time) Sarah Sanders tweeted that Miller’s error was “a reminder of the media danger of ‘tweet first, check facts later,’” and she was absolutely right. She didn’t mention another danger: Reporters can make huge mistakes if they want a story to be true or if they are looking too hard for a scoop, particularly one that’s embarrassing to the president.

Brian Ross of ABC made an even more serious error, going live on the air with a story that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was going to testify that Trump, during the campaign, had instructed him to contact Russian agents. The story missed a key fact — that this happened after Trump was elected, not before — and ABC News President James Goldston was furious. He told the network staff, “We have to be right and not first,” and that “with the stakes as high as these stakes are right now, we cannot afford to get it wrong.”

Then he added: “We will all pay the price for a long time.”

That’s true. Journalists cannot afford to get it wrong. In covering Trump, they have to be as fearless as possible, as accurate as possible and as fair as possible. Otherwise, they jeopardize their essential role in keeping the president honest.

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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