George Stephanopoulos with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office. (ABC News.)
By: Alan Sunderland, Journalism Advocate for the Fourth Estate.
It has been interesting, as an outsider currently in the US, to see some of the key issues that have emerged in the wake of the ABC network's 30 hours with Trump. From beginning to end, it has highlighted how far we the media still have to go if we want to be respected and trusted in holding powerful public figures to account.
First of all, the sideshow. ABC affiliates have been rightly criticised for helping the Trump camp build an important email list for campaign purposes by promoting the idea that people should send the President birthday greetings. The catch is that, in order to send those greetings, people would need to provide their email addresses and other person information, which is gold for any political campaign.
This was a mistake by ABC and readily acknowledged as one, with the claim that it was an editorial error by a relatively junior digital producer. There is no reason not to believe this, although some continue to suggest it was some kind of quid pro quo, that ABC provided the free plug in order to get access to the President in return. It’s a view given weight by the President's own reference to “earned media". My own view is that if that’s all it takes to get 30 hours with the US President, every network would have him on every night. Given interviewer George Stephanopoulos' tough and critical questioning and the subsequent suggestion that White House insiders now regret the level of access they provided, it’s unlikely that birthday greetings factored at all. The fact that it is being closely examined, though, is evidence of the level of concern people have about “access journalism" in general, and the pressure all journalists are under to cultivate sources and compromise their reporting in order to gain access.
But there was, in my view, a more interesting discussion to be had off the back of the ABC program, and it is a challenging issue for all media, not just ABC. If you take the time to read the unedited transcript of all of the interviews, you will see that they canvass a range of issues that are vital to the future of the US. There is close questioning on the state of the economy, on jobs, on tariffs, on healthcare, on defence and foreign policy and some very alarming exchanges on the independence of the Federal Reserve.
In most cases, the President seems to ignore, bat away or even actively mislead in his responses to those issues, but he also makes some strong claims which could and should be fact checked and debated prominently. After all, these are the issues that we know the public care about most – will I have a job, will I be able to afford to go to a doctor, will the economy stay strong and will we be safe from foreign attack?
But when I turn to the major media coverage of the interview what do I see? I see two things: highly prominent and extensive reporting about someone being sent out of the Oval Office because they sneezed, and hyperventilating over a gotcha moment as the President fumbled through an exchange over whether he would hypothetically read hypothetical information from a hypothetical foreign power before he handed it over to the FBI.
Even ABC's own top 5 takeout only manages to squeeze the Federal Reserve in at number 5, while the rest are all about campaigning tactics and politics rather than policy.
I am not saying this kind of thing shouldn’t be reported, and certainly the foreign interference issue is a valid one in the wake of the Mueller Report. And there has been some more in depth stuff too, including some early fact checking on some of President Trump's more dubious statements. But if I was an informed and interested citizen looking for the media to pick up on the important issues out of the interview and explore them for me in a brave and accountable way, I am not sure I would be satisfied.
Around the world, the mainstream media is too often accused of being obsessed with process, with insider issues and with covering politics as if it is a game. Time and again, the media gets reminders that people care less about this, and are sick of hearing about it. Even during the course of the ABC interview, President Trump makes it abundantly clear that much if his tweeting is designed to focus media and public attention on what he wants to highlight, ensuring that more important issues are relegated from the front pages or left unexamined. He does it because it works, and when the media focusses on sneezes and debates about political gamesmanship, we are similarly short-changing a public that increasingly tries of politics as theatre.
We can do more, we should do more.