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When covering an unconventional president, facts trump everything else

Donald Trump was supposed to meet with executives and journalists at the New York Times, Tuesday, but he tweeted early in the morning, "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."

In the end, it all got sorted out, and Mr. Trump met with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., editors and reporters, where he declared he has "tremendous respect" for the Times but felt "I've been treated very rough" by the paper.

He also announced that his administration would not pursue a criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton (even though during the campaign he had vowed he would), because "I don't want to hurt the Clintons. I really don't. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways. "

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Related: Trump taps Nikki Haley for ambassador to UN, sources say

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The Times mini-tempest highlights the quandary confronting journalists writing about the incoming administration. Mr. Trump is an incendiary figure, beloved of white supremacists, who has appointed a leader of the radical right, Stephen Bannon, as his most senior adviser (he told the Times that "if I thought he was a racist or alt-right or any of those things … I wouldn't even think about hiring him"), along with a passel of hawkish figures for his national security team who are inclined to treat Islam as an enemy rather than a faith.

But the presidency is an institution as well as a person. Hillary Clinton, in her concession speech, urged supporters to give the new president a fair shake. "We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead," she reminded them.

So what's the poor lamestream media, as Sarah Palin likes to call us, to do, especially at a time when revenues are declining and readers appear as inclined to accept false news through Facebook as readily as real news from institutions such as the Times?

"The press is having a period of adjustment," observes Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. For one thing, virtually every major news outlet with the exception of Fox News incorrectly predicted that Hillary Clinton would be the next president, to our collective embarrassment.

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Mr. Trump made that point when he and his senior advisers met off the record with television executives and anchors at Trump Tower Monday. He was particularly critical of CNN and NBC, according to press reports.

For another, Mr. Trump has completely rewritten the rules for covering a president. He regularly sends out his own tweets, which are often outrageous, such as Monday's suggestion that Great Britain should appoint Nigel Farage, who led opposition to the European Union as leader of UKIP, as ambassador to the United States. ("He would do a great job!")

For a third, Mr. Trump makes no secret of his disdain for the media. He repeatedly insulted reporters at election rallies; he went out to dinner last week without informing the press pool, which traditionally accompanies a president or president-elect wherever he goes; he has yet to hold a postelection press conference.

Most important, there is the new president's agenda, which includes policies – deporting at least some Latino immigrants, limiting Muslim immigration, dismantling Barack Obama's health care reforms, questioning NATO and other alliance commitments, cancelling trade treaties and the nuclear arms treaty with Iran – that many journalists believe would damage the American economy and harm the country's reputation abroad.

That is why late-night comedian Stephen Colbert – in this disrupted media landscape, comedic commentary is now viewed as journalism – declared: "I'm all for giving him a chance, but don't give him an inch. Because I believed everything he said, and I remember everything he said, and it's horrifying."

But we can't know which policies Mr. Trump will enact and which he'll abandon: witness his declaration during the Times Q&A that he might not withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change: "I'm looking at it very closely. I have an open mind to it." Previously he had dismissed climate change as a Chinese hoax.

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The president-elect also said he was rethinking his promise to make it easier to sue for libel, so as to discourage critical commentary, because someone told him, "'You know, you might be sued a lot more.' I said, 'You know, I hadn't thought of that.'"

As well, he has said that there are elements of Obamacare that he might keep, and speculated that the wall he wants to build along the Mexican border might be more of a fence, at least in places.

In the end, Mr. Edmonds believes that the job of the media is to report on the Trump presidency just as it would have reported on a Clinton presidency: "straight and aggressive. It's not about us. It's about him and the country."

Doing journalism the old-fashioned way, reporting and analyzing the facts, will also be the best way to cover this most unconventional of presidents.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More


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