Dana Milbank: Journalists are playing into Trump’s hand

Washington • A question to my colleagues in the media: Why do we play President Trump’s foil?

The scene in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, last Thursday night was familiar: journalists on an elevated platform in the middle of the arena, penned in, filming the proceedings and typing on their laptops while the president of the United States points at them and provokes thousands of people to boo them, jeer them, taunt them and chant ("CNN sucks!").

By my count, the president attacked the press — what he calls "the enemy of the American people" — no fewer than 21 times in his 75-minute speech, accusing them of fakery and conspiracy to suppress his voters.

"Oh my God, what fake news!"

"Only negative stories from the fakers back there."

"Whatever happened to honest reporting?"

"They are the fake, fake, disgusting news!"

"These people back here, these horrible, horrendous people."

The attacks on press coverage spanned the landscape of topics: the 2016 campaign, trade, the economy, NATO, Russia, his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. There were more attacks on the press than on Democrats. There is good reason for this: Democrats aren't in the room. A demagogue needs to make the enemy threat clear and present. Journalists are present and clearly visible on their risers. We become the boogeyman against which Trump whips his crowds into a frenzy.

To their credit, CNN and MSNBC didn't take the rally feed live. But why are journalists allowing themselves to be sitting ducks? We should reduce our presence to the Air Force One "pool" — a small rotating group that shares its reporting with the rest of the media. Any other journalists who wish to cover these spectacles should attend as members of the public — as my colleagues and I did when Trump briefly banned The Washington Post and other outlets from covering his events during the campaign. If Trump says something outrageous, report it. If there is violence, or conspiracy theorists taking over the place, report that. But let's not make ourselves into targets, and let's not reward this demagoguery with airtime.

Journalists should not be the story, we often say. Trump is making us the story by making us the in-house villain of his rallies. And in recent days, our breathless coverage is helping to spread the impact of a new fringe conspiracy group by naming it — which I'm not going to do here. Most egregiously, we're playing into Trump's larger purpose, and his likely 2020 theme: Any news that is unfavorable to him is fake.

My colleagues' instinct has been to fight back. During a live stand-up from Trump's Tampa rally last week, CNN's Jim Acosta was taunted by the crowd, which had been chanting "fake news" and "go home." Said Acosta: "We're staying right here. We're going to do our job and report on this rally to all of our viewers here tonight."

A noble sentiment, but better to “go home” — so Trump can’t use the scenes to his benefit. Eric Trump retweeted video of Trump supporters chanting “CNN sucks” at Acosta, adding the hashtag #Truth. The president retweeted his son.

Likewise, little was gained by Acosta's insistence, in a televised White House briefing, that Sarah Huckabee Sanders "say, right here, at this briefing, that the press ... are not the enemy of the people. I think we deserve that."

Of course, she would do no such thing ("the president has made his position known") and instead used the occasion to portray herself as a victim of harassment by the press (this after falsely alleging last week that the media tipped off Osama bin Laden about U.S. surveillance). Acosta walked out to protest Sanders' "shameful" behavior.

But we can't expect the soulless Sanders to give us what we "deserve." Let's give her what she deserves: no more cameras at the briefings, or at least no more cuts of reporters asking questions. Ask the questions, but don't play her game.

Thursday night's speech was, for Trump, relatively tame (he generally stuck with the script), but he still managed his usual mix of the false ("U.S. Steel is opening up seven plants"), the reckless (accusations regarding his own generals, the Justice Department and the Queen of England) and the scurrilous ("many" immigrants are "stone-cold killer[s]"). Is it news that Trump now says, as he did Thursday night, that his campaign claim that Mexican immigrants are murderers and rapists was "peanuts compared to what turns out to be the truth"?

Arguably. So report that. Stop letting him make us the story.

Dana Milbank | The Washington Post

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. He sketches the foolish, the fallacious and the felonious in politics. Twitter, @Milbank.