Glenn Thrush of The New York Times
One morning this past February, Olivier Knox, a veteran Washington reporter who covers the White House for Yahoo News, was driving his 11-year-old son to the YMCA. It was a few days after President Donald Trump referred to the news media as “the enemy of the American people” on Twitter. His son looked troubled. “Dad,” he asked, “is it true that Donald Trump called reporters his enemies?” Knox nodded yes. “Are you going to be safe at work?” the boy asked.
Upset, Knox tried to reassure his son. “It was a gut punch,” he recalls. “It was a really hard thing.”
Knox, along with some other journalists on the Washington and White House beat, lives in the Bethesda area and is both bemused and beleaguered by the nascent Trump administration. “It’s a fascinating time to be a journalist in Washington,” says NPR correspondent David Welna. “It’s kind of the best of times, worst of times. Best because it’s a great story. Worst because there’s a sense that journalism is under attack.”
This is not the first time a president has called out reporters as pariahs. President Richard Nixon famously kept a secret “enemies list.” Trump, by contrast, has made it a public crusade, using the press as a whipping boy. Echoing his boss, presidential adviser Stephen Bannon termed the mainstream media “the opposition party.” At a journalists party in March organized by Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, Trump’s antagonistic stance toward the press was the chief topic of conversation. “We were licking our wounds,” says Welna, a Bethesda resident who covers national security and has tangled with controversial Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka. Most everyone, Welna says, bore the label as “a badge of honor.”
The Trump administration is testing the Fourth Estate—an 18th century term applied to journalists to distinguish them from the clergy, the nobility and commoners. The White House briefing room is where traditional jousting between the president’s press secretary and reporters has become nastier, more pointed, more personal. Individual reporters such as Glenn Thrush of The New York Times have been harangued by Trump spokesman Sean Spicer. And what regularly emanates from Spicer’s podium has fact-checkers scrambling to confirm details. Tension is thick among reporters in the seven rows of seats in the West Wing’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room and the standing-room-only back-benchers.
“Every administration has grievances with the press. Few administrations, if ever, have so enthusiastically embraced the idea of treating the press as an adversary and as a monolithic unit,” says veteran political commentator George Will, who lives in Chevy Chase Village.
Will, who publicly divorced the Republican Party after Trump became its presumptive nominee and who termed the president’s Jan. 20 speech “the most dreadful inaugural address in history,” says Trump’s first three months in office were sheer “chaos.” That description is shared by many correspondents, who portray a White House riven by rivalries—chiefly between Bannon loyalists and Trump’s son-in-law/senior adviser Jared Kushner—and characterized by a woefully understaffed government bureaucracy and ephemeral policies apparently written with an Etch A Sketch. “This isn’t All the President’s Men,” says Thrush, referring to the book chronicling the Watergate scandal. “It’s Mad Max: Fury Road.”