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Barbershop: Trump's Contentious, Yet Symbiotic Relationship With The Media


Yesterday marked the 100th day of the Trump presidency, and while much of our coverage yesterday was focused on that, we did not talk about what has been one of the striking elements of the Trump presidency and that is his contentious and yet symbiotic relationship with the media.

There were three events last night that all took place after we went off the air that speak to that relationship - President Trump's rally in Harrisburg, Penn., the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner held in Washington, D.C., and something new, an event that was taped yesterday afternoon and aired last night put together by the comedian and late night talk show host Samantha Bee that was called the Not the White House Correspondents Dinner.

So we've asked three people to talk about that who all have experience with media and communications. Salena Zito is a political reporter and columnist for The Washington Examiner. That's a conservative-leaning newspaper. She attended the White House Correspondents Dinner last night, and we reached her today via Skype. Thanks, Salena.

SALENA ZITO: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Former Obama communications director Cory Ealons is here in our Washington, D.C., studios. He's been to a dinner or two in his time. Corey, thank you so much for joining us once again.

COREY EALONS: Good to be here as always, Michel.

MARTIN: And Rich Lowry is with us. He's editor of The National Review. He's with us from his home office in New York. Rich, thank you so much for joining us once again as well.

RICH LOWRY: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So, you know - so the reality of it is most people don't attend any of these kinds of events. They don't go to rallies. They don't go to expensive dinners, but they do watch them on TV, so they're TV shows. So my thought was that we should look at them that way.

And I want to start with President Trump's speech in Harrisburg. It was a - almost an hour-long address, and he spent the first, you know, 10 minutes or so bashing the media. Let me just play a short clip.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If the media's job is to be honest and tell the truth, then I think we would all agree the media deserves a very, very big, fat failing grade. Very dishonest people - and not all of them. You know, we call it the fake news - not all of them. Do you notice now they're using - everybody's using the word fake news? Where did you hear it first, folks?

MARTIN: All right. So it went on from there. There was quite a bit more than that, but we'll just start with that. Salena, I'm going to start with you because you've written a piece about how you feel that the media bashing works well for Donald Trump and continues to work well for Donald Trump. Tell us about that.

ZITO: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. This is sort of part of his shtick for lack of a better word. It plays to his base. It plays to that mistrust issue, and in that mistrust issue sort of hit its high water mark on an election night be - you know, because people thought - people were under the general assumption that he wasn't going to win. When he did win and a lot of sort of reaction from my peers whether you are a Democrat or Republican that didn't support him was a little bit of shock.

And, for me, someone who spends most of their time on, you know - outside of Washington, I'm always in a different state every week. It is very much like midnight November 8 for a lot of people. So the people that support him, they're very optimistic, and they're, you know, excited. And the people who did not support him are still somewhat in a state of shock and still haven't quite grasped the fact that he won.

MARTIN: OK. But what's the point of all this continuing to refight the election?

ZITO: Because it works. It keeps his people engaged, it keeps the people that maybe even didn't vote for him - I have an interview this week with a guy in Ashtabula, Ohio, and he said to me, look, I didn't vote for the guy. I didn't vote for Hillary. I sat it out. I didn't like either one of them. But the way the media treats him, I might vote for him in 2020. And so there is this feeling outside of Washington that it is very real, it's very palpable and it is this mistrust with our profession.

MARTIN: OK. Rich, talk to me about this speech. What do you think it accomplished if anything? What do you think it was about?

LOWRY: He loves doing rallies, and he wanted to brag about what he considers all his accomplishments in the first hundred days and bang on about the media which he loves to do. I think he put it well in the opening to this. It's a contentious yet symbiotic relationship which really nails it. I think it's a love-hate relationship on both sides. You saw it with Trump on the hundred days.

On the one hand, he would say this is a ridiculous media creation, which I agree with. It is a completely ridiculous and meaningless benchmark that just gives us an excuse to talk about how the first couple of months have gone. But on the other hand, he really cared very deeply about creating as much sense of action before the 100 days has expired as possible because he cares very deeply about what's said about him in the media.

And the media for its part has great fear and loathing of Donald Trump, I think colors the coverage every day. At the same time, no one has ever been as good for business as Donald Trump, and that began in the primaries when every cable network would broadcast his rallies from the beginning to end, not because there was any news value necessarily just because it was great entertainment and great for the ratings. And everyone's subscriptions and ratings have continued to go up.

MARTIN: OK, Corey, you're the loyal opposition here. What did you think of the messaging?

EALONS: Well, it's consistent with where he's been for - throughout the campaign and well into the 100 days of his presidency. I think it's really interesting that he chose not to go to the White House Correspondents Dinner last night primarily because he could have gone back as the conquering hero. He could have gone back as the guy who they made fun of and they cajoled and Seth Meyers and Barack Obama gave him such a hard time, and then he could go back and say, look, I'm the guy who you made fun of, but look at me now, right?

So it's really interesting from an ego standpoint he didn't choose to do that. But there's another reason he didn't go back. And, again, it has to do with Barack Obama. He didn't want the comparison. If you remember the correspondents dinner over the eight years that Obama was there, he sometimes was funnier than the comedic act that was the headliner, right? He actually has good timing and good delivery. And so we saw from Trump at the Gridiron Dinner last year when he was paired up with Hillary Clinton, he's not a good joke teller. He's not a good person in that position.

And so because he is so insecure and because he takes himself so seriously, he didn't want to put himself in that light to be compared to Obama. So I think that's one of the main reasons, too, he decided not to go. But I think it's very interesting that he made that choice.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about the speech itself that he did choose to give. What was the messaging there?

EALONS: Well, the messaging was very...

MARTIN: Was it effective?

EALONS: It was effective for the crowd. And, again, it goes to the point that's been made multiple times here in that he continues to talk to a very narrow audience. He continues to talk to his supporters who continue to support him in record numbers, but he has failed to expand the voice of the people that he's trying to reach.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the White House Correspondents Dinner. There were some pointed messages delivered there as well. The legendary journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of Watergate fame were invited to speak and invited to give out awards.

Now, I have to say, awards are always given out, scholarships are always given out, but the people doing that generally aren't invited to offer remarks. This is what Bob Woodward had to say.


BOB WOODWARD: Any the president and his administration in Washington is clearly entitled to the most serious reporting efforts possible. We need to understand to listen, to dig. Obviously, our reporting needs to get both facts and tone right.

MARTIN: Along the same lines, but edgier was Samantha Bee's event. She is - for folks who may not be familiar with her work - she's a comedian. She hosts the late night talk show called "Full Frontal" which has a - focuses a lot on politics. She also created this event. It was also a fundraiser for the Committee to Protect Journalists. And I'll just play a short clip from her show.


SAMANTHA BEE: As much as I might love poking fun at the media and as much as you all kind of deserve it sometimes, I know your job has never been harder. POTUS has convinced 88 percent of his fans that you're an enemy of the people.

MARTIN: So, Rich Lowry, I'm going to go with you first. Did any of these events succeed in reaching outside of their own bubble?

LOWRY: I thought Woodward's point is very well-taken, and this is hard to do, but when you're in the press and President Trump is using you as a foil - sometimes very effectively as we've discussed here - your role shouldn't be to reply in kind, although it's very tempting. It should be more - to be more professional and more fair-minded.

And I don't think we've seen that, and I think a lot of reporters would do well to take advice for - from this sainted elder statesman of the craft, Bob Woodward.

MARTIN: Corey, I saw you shaking your head, no, when I was setting up those pieces. What is your take on this?

EALONS: Oh, I actually do agree that the individual factions are talking to different audiences. But what I will say is this - Trump, we have to remember, lost the popular vote by 3 million votes. When you look at it from that standpoint, the folks who are not loyal Trump supporters are talking to a larger swath of the American people because they are not the ones who voted him into office. There was a very narrow vote that did.

And so that's why you have - even an opportunity to have an event like Samantha Bee's last night because there is an audience there for it. And this is a part of to some degree the loyal opposition that is mounted against Trump, Trumpism and this presidency.

MARTIN: Salena, go ahead.

ZITO: Well, I have a greater concern about journalism. You know, I come from - even though I work for CNN and the Washington - I mean, The New York Post and The Washington Examiner, you know, I was able to see this election happening because of where I live. I live in essentially the Paris of Appalachia. I live out in the Rust Belt.

And what we're losing out in these areas are local journalists to cover these types of things. And, you know, to cover government, to cover elections, to cover local government, and that's my larger concern about journalism and about, you know, understanding what's going on in communities and that helps you understand what's going on in politics. And I think - you know, while he has been - the president has been, you know, great for the Washington and the New York-based media organizations, I'm concerned about reporting coming out of those areas outside of Washington and New York and the impact that that has.

MARTIN: That was Salena Zito, Washington Examiner political columnist and commentator, former Obama communications director, Corey Ealons, and Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review. Thank you all so much for joining us.

EALONS: Thank you, Michel.

ZITO: Thank you.

LOWRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.