One White House reporter's stunning inside view of access journalism

“I personally love it when he tweets,” said Bloomberg correspondent Jennifer Jacobs of President Donald Trump during a recent appearance in Des Moines, “just because his Twitter is an uncurtained window into his mind, and we always want to know what’s on his mind, unfiltered from his staff.”

Jacobs opened a window onto her own mindset as she told a room full of journalists “what it’s like to get good information out of the Trump White House.”

After five years as the Des Moines Register’s chief politics reporter, Jacobs left Iowa in the spring of 2016 to cover the Trump campaign for Bloomberg Politics. She’s now one of six Bloomberg correspondents on the White House beat and a regular panelist on the CBS Sunday morning show “Face the Nation.”

Jacobs was back in town on October 5 as the featured speaker at the “Celebrating a Free Press and Open Government Banquet.” The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism (Iowa Watch), Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Iowa Newspaper Association put on the annual dinner, capping off a “day of events that focus on the public’s right to know and the need for news media that operate as independent government watchdogs.” I watched Jacobs’ remarks and Q & A later on the Iowa Watch Facebook page.

“A SHAME, BECAUSE I LIKE ANTHONY QUITE A BIT”

The first clue Jacobs was heading into strange territory came around the 3:00 mark. To illustrate the challenges of covering an administration with a “really fast metabolism,” she mentioned taking some vacation time this summer.

When I got back after a little over a week off, I had missed the entire Anthony Scaramucci tenure. [laughter in the audience] He was communications director for the ten days that I was gone–which is a shame, because I like Anthony quite a bit. We’ve known him–he’s a Bloomberg target, and Bloomberg really likes to write about him.

Drawing on 18 years of experience covering Wall Street, Heidi N. Moore had warned soon after Scaramucci’s hire about the finance industry’s “aggressive approach toward the press.” To kill stories they don’t like, media handlers draw up dossiers on business reporters and try to get determined ones reassigned, or co-opt them with job offers.

While Jacobs was out of town, the Mooch was bragging that CNN’s president “helped me get the job.” A few weeks earlier, Scaramucci’s pushback on a CNN scoop got the offending story retracted and three journalists dumped.

During his stint as communications director, Scaramucci complained about so-called “leaking” after reporters published remarks he had made on the record. Then, Moore observed, “he demanded an FBI investigation over how Politico obtained his financial disclosure form — which is public information.”

Few acts could have a greater chilling effect on newsgathering than criminal investigations of leaks. So anyone on the White House beat would presumably be relieved Chief of Staff John Kelly fired Scaramucci quickly. Yet Jacobs was sorry to see him go, because she likes him, and he makes for good Bloomberg copy.

For the next minute and a half, Jacobs discounted the value of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests—a bit of a plot twist at a dinner with the theme “Government Transparency: Now More Than Ever!” (Minutes before Jacobs took the floor, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which promotes our state’s open records law, had given an award to an investigative reporter known for his “skilled use of public records.”)

In fairness to Jacobs, FOIA is of limited value to her, because the president and his immediate staff are not subject to the law. Furthermore, she pointed out, agencies can take years to fulfill records requests and often cite exemptions for personal privacy or trade secrets as a pretext for withholding pertinent information. FOIA requests can lead to big scoops, but rarely the kind of breaking news Jacobs is expected to provide for Bloomberg on a daily basis.

Things got weird around the 5:30 mark.

“HIS ANSWERS, AS YOU KNOW, DON’T ALWAYS MAKE SENSE”

In his widely-read take on “prospects for the American press under Trump,” media critic Jay Rosen urged journalists not to make access the “organizing principle” for their work.

Don’t make it all about access to the President and his aides, or preserving the routines of White House reporting, as the press corps is currently doing— mostly out of habit. A Trump presidency is likely to be constructed on a propaganda model in which fomenting confusion is not a drag on the Administration’s agenda but a sign that it’s working. Access to such a machinery could wind up enlisting the press in a misinformation campaign.

In contrast, Jacobs told the Des Moines audience,

So probably the best–one of the best ways to get information out of this White House is to go straight to Trump himself. His departures and arrivals from the South Lawn whenever he goes on a trip have become little mini-press conferences lately, and that has been really handy. His answers, as you know, don’t always make sense.

By way of example, Jacobs described the scene on September 27, when Trump assured the press corps Republicans had the votes to repeal Obamacare. The only trouble was, they couldn’t pass the Graham-Cassidy bill by the September 30 deadline, because one “yes” vote was in the hospital. (No senator was hospitalized. Senator Bill Cassidy himself had admitted they didn’t have the votes.)

As Jason Schwartz discussed here, Trump’s impromptu press conferences give journalists little time to prepare and no opportunity to follow up while competitors are “screaming and yelling” their own questions. Maybe Jacobs values these spectacles because it’s easy to churn out copy afterwards. But how is it “handy” to go straight to the president, when so many of his public statements are false?

Jacobs acknowledged that reporters can’t bank on everything they hear in the White House. Starting around 6:40:

Another piece of the Trump intrigue within this administration is that what’s true one day is not necessarily true tomorrow. One person might be in the president’s doghouse today and his best buddy a few weeks later. He might say something is coming, some policy or proposal is coming in two weeks, and months will pass.

I’m not following how those insights support the original claim: “one of the best ways to get information out of this White House is to go straight to Trump himself.” My confusion deepened a short while later.

His tweets are another great way for us to get information. I personally love it when he tweets, just because his Twitter is an uncurtained window into his mind, and we always want to know what’s on his mind, unfiltered from his staff. So we monitor everything and write headlines and news stories off of his tweets every single day.

I understand why Trump’s tweets are sometimes newsworthy. Plus, that’s an easy piece to write quickly when you have an almost unlimited news hole, as Bloomberg does with its terminals and frequently updated website. On the other hand, a write-up of a tweet has minimal added value for readers who can access the president’s feed in real time.

Jacobs proceeded to explain that when Kelly came on as chief of staff, some subordinates asked him, “How do we get the president to stop tweeting?” She paraphrased his response as follows:

“We don’t need to stop him from tweeting. It’s fine for him to tweet, we just need to get him to tweet factual information. So what we’re going to do is overwhelm him with facts.” And that’s what General Kelly has tried to do, is just make sure the president has the right information, so that if he does tweet, then he tweets the correct information. It doesn’t always work.

No, it doesn’t.

“HERE’S THE THING: HE ONLY BASHES PEOPLE WHO CRITICIZE HIM”

In my “past life” covering Russian politics, I closely followed efforts to reassert state power over the media. Early in Vladimir Putin’s presidency, government officials discredited certain news sources. The Kremlin and its proxies used political and financial leverage to drive disfavored journalists and editors from influential television networks, targeted some reporters with criminal investigations, squeezed media shareholders, and forced some outlets into liquidation.

Since last winter, I have worried the Trump administration would pursue a “divide and conquer” strategy to tame the White House press corps, punishing reporters who are too persistent while rewarding those who are relatively compliant.

I was struck by how readily Jacobs accepts Trump’s rules of engagement. Right after praising the mini-press conferences on the South Lawn, she remarked (around 6:10), “He also likes to come back and talk to us on Air Force One. As much as he likes to badmouth us publicly, he’s almost always willing to come and talk to us wherever we are to try to influence us.”

Alluding to Nicholas Kristof, Jacobs noted that a New York Times opinion writer had tweeted in August, “If only President Trump denounced neo-Nazis with the passion and the sincerity with which he excoriates journalists.” She added, “But here’s the thing: He only bashes people who criticize him.”

Is that supposed to be reassuring? Selective bullying of reporters (or whole news networks) is a great way for someone in power to incentivize self-censorship.

Toward the end of her prepared remarks, Jacobs discussed Trump’s pointed criticism of her in late 2015 (“the worst […] She will write such misrepresentation”). In part, “He thought I was deflating his crowd sizes.” Later, she learned he was also “doing a little bit of damage control,” because the Des Moines Register was set to publish a new Iowa poll the next day. Trump correctly guessed Ann Selzer’s numbers would show Ben Carson leading the Republican field.

Over the next couple of minutes, Jacobs revealed the secret to staying on good terms with this president. Starting around 19:30:

But the trick with Trump–so, I have always tried to cover him just as neutrally as apolitically as possible. We just report what he says and does, explain the facts, and people who aren’t hard-news journalists can judge and make comments about him. He still does get occasionally very irritated with me, but it’s been a while.

Here’s the thing about Trump, is if you are smiling at him, he smiles back. It’s a really simple formula. [laughter in the audience]

Jacobs recalled a moment during Trump’s appearance at the United Nations General Assembly a couple of weeks earlier. World leaders were sitting for a so-called “family photo.” Trump adopted what Jacobs called his “eagle look, where he looks very stern.” Standing about ten feet away in a cluster of reporters, she started laughing because he was posing like such a “tough guy.”

So I just started cracking up, and he saw me, and he pointed at me, and he cracked this big grin. And that’s him smiling at me. [showed this slide]

And so, that’s what you have to remember about Trump, is if he thinks that you’re criticizing him, you’re in his doghouse. If he thinks that you’re not attacking him, he’s fine with you. And that’s it, that’s all you need to know about Donald Trump.

To recap: be apolitical, smile, and don’t let the president think you are criticizing him.

I don’t even know what to say.

“I CAN TELL YOU FROM HIM AND FROM HIS ADVISERS…”

The old journalist’s adage goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Jacobs is more willing to give official sources the benefit of the doubt. This remarkable comment was meant to show that while the president “seems predictable to us in some ways […] he’s still an enigma to us in so many ways.” (around 7:00)

Somebody in the press predicted that he was going to hate Camp David, that it was just not going to be his style, he was never going to like going there. I can tell you from him and from his advisers, he absolutely loves it there, truly and sincerely. I think he would spend much more time there if it had a golf course. [laughter from the audience]

It doesn’t. It just has a–it has golf carts, that’s how they get around from cabin to cabin, but it only has one hole of golf.

I’m reminded of the Chico Marx line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Trump has made four trips to Camp David, the first nearly five months after his inauguration. Meanwhile, he has visited Trump properties on 93 days of his presidency, spending all or part of 73 days at golf clubs. He was at his Virginia golf club on five of the past ten days.

A recurring theme for Jacobs was that many staffers want to help reporters do their jobs well. (starting at 8:50)

There’s a lot of really good aides in the White House. Nobody really preaches the, you know, transparency gospel, but I can tell you, there are a lot of senior staff who do want journalists to have access to good information. And of course General Kelly, he’s really good to work with. You won’t see him quoted very often, but he helps us behind the scenes a lot.

You hear a lot about the leaks coming from the White House. And yes, there’s a lot of people who want to talk. They want to be helpful, push their own agenda. Most aren’t malicious leakers, they really just want to get information out there.

Everyone working this beat needs to cultivate well-placed sources. But for the staff talking on background or off the record, the primary goal will never be helping journalists. Whether or not you call them “malicious,” those people are trying to shape the tone and content of news coverage.

Speaking of which, Jacobs thinks highly of Vice President Mike Pence’s press shop. (starting around 11:20)

Another great way for us to get information is from the Vice President and his staff. For a dose of what a traditional politician is like, I will often tag along with Pence and his staff for a day. They operate more like what you would think, you know, a White House from the past would operate. You know, their aides let reporters know what’s coming. They fill us in on background, so that we can prepare to pre-write stories and be ready for news.

Probably every political reporter has used embargoed information to get a jump on an article. That said, journalists need to be careful not to write the story officials put in front of them too often.

Also, a healthy skepticism is lacking here.

The vice president’s rhetoric is often more accurate than the president’s himself. For example, Trump keeps saying that this tax cut that he’s proposing only benefits the middle class, and the rich won’t benefit.

Pence, on the other hand, will say, you know, listen, this plan would cut taxes across the board, which is much more true.

Is it? More than half the benefits would go to the top 1 percent on the income scale.

Back to the Jacobs take on Pence: “He isn’t always completely straightforward–hardly. But if you spend the day with him, you’ll see him demonstrate some humility as a feature of public service.”

For the next couple of minutes, Jacobs recounted a day trip to a Texas community ravaged by Hurricane Harvey. I was having flashbacks to her time at the Register, when I sometimes sensed her skills were better suited for work as a press flack.

And the staff had orchestrated a brush-moving photo-op, where Pence was going to be seen out in the front yard of a damaged house, clearing downed trees in front of the house and moving it out to the curb. But once he started, he wanted to move that whole pile. His staff kept saying, ok, it’s time to get going. But he is the kind of guy that likes to do something, not just talk. And he likes to, you know, get a little dirty, sweat a little bit.

And you know–who knows–Iowans, I think, can detect stagecraft and, you know, whatever, better than anyone else. But there was some authenticity too.

The gee-whiz tone continued as Jacobs talked about the flight back to DC. Reporters noticed “his cowboy boots were just real: old, beat-up, worn.” Pence stood in the aisle chatting with staffers and cabinet members. “He didn’t have them come to him in the front of the plane. He came back to chat with them.”

Sure he did–he wanted the press corps to see what a regular guy he is. The fact that Pence got sunburned in Texas, even though he brought a body man and his wife along on the trip, “just kind of added to the realness of him.” Someone is easily impressed.

“IT’S A LITTLE BIT MORE EGALITARIAN”

Next, Jacobs turned her attention to the White House communications staff. (starting around 13:55) As useful sources, she ranks them “low.”

[Y]es, we get some information from them once in a while. But they also spin and redirect and withhold information. They are very concerned about how the president is presented in the media, and they will do what they can to kill stories that they know will send Trump into a rage.

Asked to confirm several items, the communications staff may ignore most questions and hone in on one incorrect fact, hoping to discourage the journalist from publishing. “Or they’re just not forthcoming, or they’ll misdirect. But a lot of times they don’t know what the president has done or said,” and are struggling to figure that out.

However, Jacobs had nice things to say about a former White House press secretary.

Sean Spicer sometimes misspoke, but he was very helpful to the press behind the scenes. He’s a really good guy, I can tell you guys that. And he really has been–he was a good comms guy behind the scenes.

I’ll just quickly, like–in the Obama era, in the press briefings, they would call on AP [Associated Press] and Reuters first, those two organizations always got the first two questions, and Sean tossed that out the window. Now anybody might get the very first question in the briefing. It’s a little bit more egalitarian, I think.

The sound you don’t hear on the video is “Iowa nice” reporters stifling the urge to bang their heads against the dinner tables.

Spicer didn’t even wait for Trump to be sworn in before warning CNN’s Jim Acosta that he had better behave if he wanted to attend future press conferences.

He came out of the gate on day 2 of the Trump presidency lying about the inauguration crowd size. He took no questions after reading that prepared rant.

Heaven knows how many false statements Spicer made between January and July.

In a near-perfect expression of access journalism standards, Jacobs characterized Spicer as “a good comms guy behind the scenes.” Hey, at least he put the AP and Reuters correspondents in their place! Anyone might enjoy the privilege of being misled after asking the first question now.

Incidentally, the admiration is mutual. Jacobs was among eight journalists Spicer named last month when the Washington Post’s media blogger Erik Wemple asked which White House reporters “did good work.”

“THEY WILL HELP YOU IF THEY THINK YOU’RE NOT OUT TO JUST KNIFE THE PRESIDENT”

Jacobs has broken a lot of news over the years thanks to good Republican contacts. At the Register, she got the final 2012 GOP Iowa caucus results a day before the rest of the press corps.

This year, she has been first to report a bunch of White House decisions and hirings. That kind of scoop isn’t on the same level as a major investigation, which might not otherwise have seen the light of day. Still, if your target audience is traders glued to their Bloomberg terminals, beating the competition to any political news is valuable, even if everyone else would have had the story within in a few hours.

When I posted that a Czech newspaper was asserting Representative Steve King was in line to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, Jacobs was first to refute the account. Trump aides told her–accurately, it turned out–the president was appointing a different Steve King.

In addition to working her administration contacts, Jacobs said she often relies “on the outsiders” who previously worked for Trump. “Some of them are still really plugged in to people who work at the White House.”

During the Q & A, someone asked whether she finds it harder to interview people and gain their trust, with the president regularly calling the press “fake news.” (29:20)

No, especially not with Bloomberg, just because Bloomberg has such a reputation for not being a gotcha outlet. We’re not trying to write a whole lot of palace intrigue, and you know, just gossipy stories. We really just try to keep to straight news that’s going to move the markets.

So far, if I introduce myself to a Republican, including at his rallies, people will still talk to me.

You know, there has been some news that have–reputable outlets have reported that just hasn’t been true, that was thinly sourced. […]

And so, I know there’s a lot of frustration from the White House staffers. There’s a difference between fake news and just, you know, sloppy journalists, sloppy journalism and people putting out things that shouldn’t have been put out there quite yet. But a lot of it is the White House doesn’t necessarily respond to everybody and get back to everyone and help them with their news stories when they need the help, when they’re, you know, on deadline and about to publish.

But you will find Republicans in DC and in the White House will work with reporters they think really try to be credible and fair–we don’t always get it right, I’ve had some corrections–but they will help you if they think you’re not out to just knife the president, if you’re really just trying to report the facts. So people still cooperate with us. I mean, I just don’t have any problems at all.

The essence of access journalism: you treat me well, because you know I’m not out to get you.

Jacobs doesn’t seem to view the arrangement as a necessary evil. Her answer to a follow-up (does Trump really believe reporters are the enemies of the people?) favorably compared this administration’s media management practices to President Barack Obama’s. (31:50)

Yeah, that’s a really good question. I truly do think he does believe it, and his staff will say he believes it. He’s not just saying that. It’s not just rhetoric for him. He truly thinks that journalists are left-leaning, that we all are out to, you know, undermine his election and state that he wasn’t a legitimately elected president, and to thwart him at every move. He’s not making that up when he says that. He really, truly thinks that the media has a left bent to it, and that we’re out to destroy him. But not everyone in the White House thinks that way.

And you know, like in the Obama White House, they played favorites with reporters quite a bit. If you were from the New York Times or Fox, or certain other newspapers, you would get your e-mails returned very, very quickly.

With the Trump White House, what I hear from reporters, is the ones who couldn’t get answers out of the Obama White House, do get their answers, get answers, maybe not always quickly, not always the answers they want. But they do feel like this White House does help them. So there is a little bit of a difference there. This White House is trying to help reporters, and they are trying to help people get facts straight. […]

Got that? Trump’s press shop is “trying to help people get facts straight.” Never mind that this president has told dozens of deliberate lies and made “1,318 false or misleading claims,” as of October 10.

It’s not that Jacobs is indifferent to the president’s insult. (31:10)

And I–yes, I would like the president to quit calling us fake news, and it, it chafes a little bit. But we just kind of shrug it off at this point.

I–some people think he says that to get a reaction out of us. I don’t know if that’s true. He really does get frustrated. It’s usually not fake news. It’s usually critical news. That’s his code for something that criticizes him, is “fake news.” And he’s just really thin-skinned about that, if it’s a negative article, he just really hits the roof. It’s not an exaggeration. He flies into rages.

Trump isn’t merely seeking to annoy beltway reporters. Like the Los Angeles Times editors wrote six months ago, he is “undermining trust in news organizations and delegitimizing journalism and muddling the facts so that Americans no longer know who to believe.” The more he can diminish journalists’ credibility, the less vulnerable he will be to the next bombshell revelation about his administration’s corruption or his campaign’s collusion with Russia.

Speaking of which, Jacobs had commented (around 26:00) that White House staff are very confident “the Russia scandal will be eventually put to bed,” and Trump will win re-election. The person asking the final question wanted to know Jacobs’ own thoughts about the Russia investigation. Her answer in full (35:30):

I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I mean, it’s–I’m going to be non-committal on that one. I just don’t know. I mean, more has come out than we ever expected. But then, it just doesn’t seem–I mean, if you want to take like, the Senate Intelligence Committee chair just the other day [October 4] said, it remains an open question. It’s an unanswered question. We can’t definitively say yet that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

So I guess I would just lean on him for that one and say I just don’t know yet. And there are so many great journalists who are out there working on it day and night, trying to figure out what the collusion was.

But my instincts would tell me that if there was any collusion, that the president didn’t know about it. I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that. Perhaps his staff or his family members or someone knew, but I don’t think the president did.

Based on what is already known about Donald Trump, Jr’s covert meeting with Russian operatives, Paul Manafort offering private campaign briefings to a Russian oligarch, and Jared Kushner trying to set up a secure line of communication through the Russian embassy, I don’t know why anyone would assume the president didn’t know about possible collusion. Fortunately, as Jacobs noted, many capable reporters are digging into this story.

Looking at the glass half empty, it’s dispiriting to hear someone defend the Trump administration’s media relations at an event that was supposed to be about a free press. Since October 5, the president has continued to demonstrate he lacks any understanding of the First Amendment.

Looking at the glass half full, Jacobs is now one among many White House correspondents, some of whom take a more adversarial approach to the job, instead of the chief politics reporter for Iowa’s most influential news organization.

Top image: Jennifer Jacobs speaking at the October 5 “Celebrating a Free Press and Open Government Banquet” in Des Moines. Cropped from a picture posted by Iowa Watch on Twitter.

  • This is appalling

    What an utter disgrace of a journalist. I’m embarrassed that she came out of Iowa. She wouldn’t last 10 minutes at the Post, or even the New York Times which has had its own problems with distinguishing between access and news.

  • Stockholm Syndrome!

    Stock·holm syn·drome
    noun
    feelings of trust or affection felt in certain cases of kidnapping or hostage-taking by a victim toward a captor.

    A family member, close friend, or her freaking editor needs to make an intervention here!

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