It’s hard to imagine the press corps having a more dysfunctional relationship with the White House, but the media shouldn’t make itself the story. So says Josh Earnest, who was White House press secretary during President Obama’s second term.
Speaking on a “Press & the Presidency” panel at Harvard Tuesday evening, Earnest said the media has too often allowed itself to be played by President Trump in the first month of the administration.
“Journalism, for an institution that is focused on critiquing people in power, is remarkably thin-skinned,” said Earnest. “And we’ve seen President Trump cynically use the tendency of the press to defend itself, and to bristle at criticism, to try to distract from the tough questions that the media is asking him.”
The relationship between reporters and the White House is at a low ebb these days, with Trump pillorying the press for trafficking in “fake news” and declaring the media — in a tweet, of course — to be “the enemy of the American people.”
Earnest was joined, via Skype, by Jessica Yellin, former chief White House correspondent for CNN, who’s now at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, and David Gergen, who served four presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton — and is now one of CNN’s saner talking heads and the co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Yellin said that by “over-obsessing” about Trump’s attacks, the media is threatening to turn White House press coverage into a spectacle worthy of the World Wrestling Entertainment, which, she said, is what Trump wants.
Earnest said it would be wrong to suggest that the president hates the media — he owes his election to the media — but the relationship is complicated.
“I don’t think President Trump has a grand ambition to erase the First Amendment from the copy of the Constitution in the National Archives,” Earnest said. “I just think he often finds the First Amendment to be really, really inconvenient. . . . He’d rather pretend it doesn’t exist or that it’s not that important or that it’s somehow malleable.”
The truth, Earnest said, is that Trump benefits from the media and the media is benefiting from Trump.
“Newspaper circulations are going up, viewership of television news is increasing,” he said. “It’s undeniable that these political conversations are more present in our day-to-day lives, for better or worse. Sometimes it’s a source of conflict and friction in our lives, but a more engaged citizenry can only be good for the country.”
Earnest was also asked about Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, on “Saturday Night Live.”
“It’s important to show a little sense of humor,” he said. “When you’re in a position that visible, taking some lumps and being the butt of a joke or two is part of the territory.”