All is well between Donald Trump and the media. The meeting he cancelled with The New York Times on Tuesday has been re-instated, the war is over. But, of course, it is not.
It is a war that Mr Trump revels in. He actively stoked it as a candidate for the Republican nomination, then as the nominee and is continuing to do so as President-elect.
“The most dishonest people in the world” he declared in Indianapolis in April, directing supporters at a rally to turn to the press pen filled with reporters, this one included. “They’re the worst. Honestly. Do we like the media?” (No! from the crowd). “Do we hate the media?” (Yes!)
It is that kind of response that encourages him. Attacking the mainstream media is a default tactic of the populist right. Sarah Palin called it the “lamestream media”. Reporters score poorly in public opinion surveys and are an easy target. Voters who bought that other favourite Trumpism - that everything is “rigged”, against him and them - consider reporters the culprits.
Ad hominem assaults on journalists are one thing. Actually constraining the freedom of the press is another. For many crucial weeks of the campaign, before and after the national conventions, Mr Trump went so far as to ban The Washington Post and other outlets, including Politico and Buzzfeed, from his events, an interdiction that was only lifted in September.
In February, Mr Trump raised the possibility for the first time of bringing America’s libel laws more in line with those in Britain, to make it easier for people such as himself to sue - and win - when they feel they have been unfairly treated. As it happens, changing those laws would be extremely hard, even for a president, and would involve either amending the Constitution or persuading the Supreme Court to declare the current standards too restrictive.
But these are unnerving times for the industry. A few days after the election, The Times even felt it necessary to run a letter co-signed by its publisher and executive editor - Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Dean Baquet - reassuring readers that its compass would not be knocked out of kilter by Mr Trump’s victory. That included a pledge to cover the new administration “impartially”.
“We aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism,” they wrote. That meant, they went on, holding “power to account, impartially and unflinchingly. You can rely on The New York Times to bring the same fairness, the same level of scrutiny, the same independence to our coverage of the new president and his team.”
On Tuesday, Mr Trump beat his chest at the Times just long enough to hear applause from the heartland before reversing himself and signaling that he would be going to the paper’s Midtown Manhattan HQ later in the day after all. The reason he gave for having cancelled at all - as usual, via Twitter - was that the Times had changed the ground rules for it, an accusation that the paper itself vigorously denied in a statement. And also, he wanted everyone to know, it has been “nasty” in its reporting of him.
“I cancelled today’s meeting with the failing nytimes when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice,” Mr Trump had tweeted. “In the meantime, they continue to cover me inaccurately and with a nasty tone!” he said in another.
Those ground rules were straightforward enough. He was to have an off-the-record meeting with executives and then an on-the-record one with reporters and columnists.
The first of those sessions, at least, was likely to be combative, judging by the smoke-signals from his encounter with a large coterie of TV executives and anchors in Trump Tower on Monday. Among those present was Jeff Zucker, who runs CNN, and journalists Wolf Blister, David Muir, Lester Holt, Charlie Rose and George Stephanopoulos.
This might have been an occasion for an amiable chat about covering Mr Trump once he becomes president. He has, after all, already broken established protocol in ways that has given every major outlet early jitters, sometimes moving around without the permanent pool of reporters that every president and president-elect in modern times has acquiesced to. Working in the “death-watch” pool can be tiresome, but the purpose of it is as its nickname suggests.
That wasn’t what Mr Trump had in mind. Though this too was off-the-record, some of what happened has inevitably leaked out. They were put on the naughty step. Or nasty step.
“It was like a f−−−ing firing squad,” one source told the New York Post of the encounter. “Trump started with Jeff Zucker and said, ‘I hate your network, everyone at CNN is a liar and you should be ashamed,’ ” the source said, going on: “The meeting was a total disaster. The TV execs and anchors went in there thinking they would be discussing the access they would get to the Trump administration, but instead they got a Trump-style dressing-down,” the source added.
That a Trump White House will be just as adversarial seems at this point to go without saying. Amongst those on a shortlist to be his chief spokesperson is Laura Ingraham, the radio host and Fox News contributor who has amply demonstrated her ability to catch criticism of Mr Trump and throw it back in the face of those who attempt it.
Mr Trump may change the game in Washington in other ways too. He could continue to turn to Twitter to avoid having to use the media as a conduit for his message. And he could simply shut press access down entirely when it suits him.
The media will protest. But a protesting media seems to be the sound he likes the best.Reuse content