Some basketball players complain mightily when they're called for an obvious foul, then they adopt a look of shocked disbelief when the refs don't call a minor foul on the other team. If the player does it often enough, especially if he's a star, he may have a later foul overlooked or get a makeup foul called on the other side. If it's in front of a hometown crowd, the fans often join in as well—"What are ya, blind?" "Kill the ref!"—adding to the pressure on the officials calling the game. It's known as working the refs.
The Trump team are expert at working the refs, or in their case, working the press. During the primaries, Trump got far more coverage than any of his competitors. Even when it was unfavorable, it had an Entertainment Tonight, star quality feel to it—"Can you believe what this guy did? Amazing! You gotta love him." The constant coverage definitely helped his campaign. Nevertheless, he complained about the press with a combination of bitterness and glee, calling them the biggest liars in the world, and encouraged supporters at his rallies to join in the hate fest.
I won't try to rate the overall media coverage during the Trump/Clinton contest, since how you call that varies with the eye of the beholder. Recent revelations, however, about the intelligence community's investigations into ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign which were known to the press but went virtually unreported at the same time Clinton-related emails were covered breathlessly, even when there was little newsworthy to report, are raising new questions about the press' refusal to publish potentially damning, politically damaging stories about the Trump-Putin connection. But Trump condemned the media like clockwork, as regularly as he called Hillary crooked and bragged that he would "Built the wall" and make Mexico pay for it.
No one knows if the Trump administration will use legislation or executive orders to rob the media of some of its freedom of expression. If that happens, the nation will be in deep, deep trouble. But we know his team is going to continue to work the refs every chance it gets. Trump used his recent press conference to condemn CNN by name, accusing it of spreading "Fake News" because it reported accurately that Trump had received a briefing paper about allegations of Russia's attempts to steer the election in his favor. When the press reported that the crowd at his inauguration was significantly smaller than Obama's in 2009, Trump sent his press secretary Sean Spicer to yell at them for stating the truth. Trump used his talk with the CIA to continue his condemnation of the press for its accurate coverage of the size of the crowd at his inauguration. And spinmeister extraordinaire Kellyanne Conway regularly threatens the media, warning them something terrible might happen to them if they refuse to behave.
Will the Trump team's working of the refs be successful? It definitely helped him during the campaign. But I'm hopeful it could have the opposite effect now that he's president. The press may be growing a stronger backbone to fight its urge to capitulate. The headline of a front page story in today's New York Times
uses the dreaded "L" word: Meeting With Top Leaders, Trump Repeats an Election Lie
(The headline is a bit different in the online edition but still calls a Lie a Lie). [Note to the willfully deluded: Yes, it's a flat-out lie to say that millions of people voted illegally.] And the Times is adding what it calls "a new Washington investigations team to our existing teams covering the White House, Capitol Hill and the Pentagon." It looks like the Times is gearing up to depend less on insider access and more on shoe-leather-style investigative journalism. Other news outlets appear to be resisting the urge to give in to pressure from Trump and his team.
We'll see. The next time Trump refuses to answer a reporter's question at a press conference, will other reporters rally to the reporter's defense and insist the question be answered before they go on, or will they breathe a collective sigh of relief that it was the other guy who got yelled at and not them? That will tell us a lot.
A "Why's everybody always pickin' on me?" Bonus Feature.
It's becoming ever more apparent that Trump is the thin-skinned bully he appeared to be on the campaign trail, who joyfully stomps on others but pouts and cries when someone hurts his feelings. Talking Points Memo has excerpts from three stories about how upset Trump is
that the news isn't covering him with the proper adulation.
The NY Times.
Mr. Trump grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama’s in 2009.
The Washington Post.
Trump has been resentful, even furious, at what he views as the media’s failure to reflect the magnitude of his achievements.
And most damning, Politico.
One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.
To use one of Trump's favorite descriptives: Sad. But considering he's the most powerful man in the country, maybe in the world, a more appropriate descriptive is: Scary.