For two years, I worked out of Room 9, the headquarters of the New York City Hall press corps. The high-ceilinged chamber is crammed with world-wise, cynical reporters covering the mayor and City Council. For generations, reporters have filed stories and occasionally schmoozed with the mayor in the little room just off the rotunda in City Hall.
There are drawbacks to working there. When you jam like-minded reporters into a single space, there’s a tendency for groupthink to manifest. It’s not something you notice when you’re there: It’s only later that you understand how stories can develop through subtle peer pressure or the assumption that one angle is correct because a bunch of people sitting together, many of them older than you are, say it’s so. I saw this most frequently with the relentless and ultimately misguided coverage of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s trips to the gym and his handful of flights in a helicopter.
But Room 9 also breeds solidarity. During a press conference last October, the New York Post’s City Hall bureau chief, Yoav Gonen, tried to ask a question. De Blasio, a liberal Democrat who resents how the conservative and oft-hostile Post covers his administration, refused to call on Gonen.
De Blasio’s reasoning? He had no use for a “right-wing rag.”
A Wall Street Journal reporter, among others, stood up for Gonen. The reporter, Josh Dawsey, noted de Blasio often limits the line of questioning he receives at press conferences. “I’m just curious — taking questions once a week, and you know, insulting newspapers, media outlets — how do you think it’s helping you? How is it helping you?” Dawsey asked.
That sort of solidarity was notably absent last week when Donald Trump, our president to be, refused to call on CNN’s Jim Acosta during a rare press conference. Labeling CNN “fake news” and BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage” for their reporting on a damning (and dubious) dossier from a former British intelligence official, Trump managed to land another haymaker against the media, already distrusted by much of America. The hope for the press, whatever it could have been, was to shine light on Trump’s endless foreign entanglements and his shoddy plan to divest his business interests.
Instead, Trump learned you could do the equivalent of punching a reporter in the mouth without suffering any consequences. Many journalists in the room wanted to ask their own questions — likely at the behest of demanding editors — and could not take the time to defend one of their own. Not always the quickest-thinking lot, journalists didn’t pivot to challenge Trump on how he degraded their colleagues. They had their own questions.
At a press conference this week, de Blasio was asked about his treatment of the Post reporter in light of Trump’s refusal to answer Acosta’s question. De Blasio said he’s called on Gonen many times since (this is true) and argued the situation was like comparing “apples to oranges” (not quite true). De Blasio has learned in the months since that Room 9 reporters won’t take the snub of one of their own lying down.
The national press is far larger and more amorphous than the band of local reporters trailing the mayor around. Solidarity is not easily built. But anyone covering Trump must understand that winter is coming, in the words of press critic Jay Rosen. Past presidents have attempted to subvert and circumvent the press, and framed their administration in opposition to the Fourth Estate. This time it’s different. Trump has banned news outlets from his events, repeatedly heaped abuse on individual reporters, and made a mockery out of the idea of an objective truth existing in any form.
In response to a president as savagely hostile to the press as Trump, journalists will need to unite. This will mean, when afforded opportunities to confront Trump in public, not retreating to a prepared question when one of their own is berated or silenced. It will mean boycotting events if Trump reintroduces a blacklist. It will mean recognizing that Trump has a willfully flimsy understanding of the First Amendment, and calling him out directly whenever he shreds yet another democratic norm.
The Trump era offers opportunity for journalists who want to seize it. Inadvertently, Trump may end up dismantling Washington’s worst journalistic tropes and numbing rituals, the ways reporters have cozied up to people in power in return for exclusive and often meaningless or misleading information. For decades, D.C. journalists cherishing their roles as insiders have posed as representatives of the public while parroting party lines, carrying water for the White House, intelligence agencies, or anyone with a nameplate that’s bound to impress at cocktail parties. Sourcing up with lying sources isn’t sound practice, and never was. By the grace of Trump, may the insidious White House Correspondents Dinner rest in peace.
City Hall reporters, myself included, have been guilty of playing the access journalism game, too. And it’s important to remember that confronting de Blasio, a conventional politician deferential to most democratic norms, is very different from uniting against Trump, an improvisational and unstable ringmaster. National reporters are a diffuse and hyper-competitive bunch, which will make it even harder to not repeat the Acosta episode.
Yet, for the sake of our balky body politic, they must think ahead. If Trump can get away with trampling one or two reporters, he will go further. If he repeatedly insults one reporter or bans another, anyone and everyone could be next.
If reporters truly want to represent the public, they will have to learn to stand their ground.