How do you respond to a bully — hit back immediately, or take the high road?
Confronted with Twitter broadsides from President Donald Trump this week, CNN took the first approach, and The Washington Post took the latter.
The Post responded to Trump’s repeated goading about its relationship with Amazon and Jeff Bezos, who owns both companies, with restrained public statements and a stiff upper lip, before publishing a long and writerly analysis on Thursday, entitled “Why Trump went after Bezos: Two billionaires across a cultural divide.”
CNN, when attacked by Trump for supposedly hiring only anti-Trump job applicants, immediately hit back with a roundhouse kick aimed right at Trump: “Once again, false. . .” began CNN’s tweet back at the president, also pointing out Trump’s misspelling of the CNN president’s name and repeating the network’s #FactsFirst slogan. “Jeff's last name is spelled Z-U-C-K-E-R. Those are the facts. #FactsFirst.”
The differing responses, according to media observers, reflect both the cultures of the two organizations, and their places in the media world. CNN, as a public-facing cable news outlet, is a visible part of the daily media fray, often sparring on camera with Trump administration officials or, at times, the president. The Post, as a newspaper with an elite national following, is more careful about maintaining a sense of decorum – of letting its stories do the talking.
The challenge for both outlets has been finding the best way to push back on unproven allegations made by a president who has labeled the media as the opposition and “enemy of the American people”—without playing into his hand by appearing to be, in fact, the opposition. And on that score, top media observers say, CNN’s approach is riskier than the Post’s.
Frank Sesno, a former CNN anchor, said he approved of the network’s decision to correct the record in a sharply worded Tweet aimed back at Trump, but he added that CNN must be cautious about getting drawn into a constant tic-for-tac. In essence, he said, the network is walking a fine line.
“I think CNN’s response was justified and appropriate, but I think they need to be careful because they should not want anyone to think they are enjoying this or getting in anything that anyone could consider as a cheap shot,” said Sesno, who is now the director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “The stakes are too high and their reputation is too important.”
Trump’s aim in attacking both CNN and the Post is to discredit their journalism, Sesno said, which could make viewers and readers see their stories as an expression of a feud with Trump rather than an objective rendering of the facts.
Inside the Post newsroom, there is simmering anger over Trump’s claims that Jeff Bezos, who owns both the Post and Amazon, is using the newspaper as a lobbying force for the online retailer. Trump has coupled these assertions with a claim that Amazon is cheating the U.S. Post Office, and a promise to obtain a better deal for the government. Not only is there no evidence for the claim that Bezos uses the Post to help Amazon, but the president’s threat to Amazon is a form of retaliation against the paper, which has broken numerous damaging stories about Trump.
Nonetheless, the reporters refused to say anything on the record, an implicit endorsement of the Post’s restraint. Until Thursday, the paper’s response had largely consisted of an interview executive editor Marty Baron gave the New York Times on Monday, four days after Trump’s initial tweet about his paper, and a statement issued by publisher Fred Ryan, on Tuesday. Baron and Ryan both strongly denied the substance of Trump’s claim—that the Post carries water for Amazon as its “chief lobbyist”—with Ryan calling them “preposterous and disingenuous.”
“It’s completely made up,” Baron told the Times, adding, “There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon. Not one penny.” Baron added that Bezos does not influence the paper’s coverage, but seemed to avoid language that may have led any independent observers to think the paper is eager to take on Trump.
Len Downie, who helmed the Post from 1991 to 2008, said that Baron appeared to be going off the same playbook he would have used. “We had a responsibility to the public as a prominent news medium,” Downie said, “so I felt it was always important to explain what we were doing and not go beyond that.”
“It’s not a personal matter,” he said of the paper’s relationship with Trump.
On Thursday, the paper posted its long Trump-Bezos story, in which Marc Fisher, one of the paper’s star writers and a former columnist, explored the different characters of the two billionaires, including a suggestion that Trump is jealous of Bezos’ superior wealth.
“Even the manner in which the dispute has played out illustrates the gulf that separates Trump and Bezos, in their personal styles and in their conceptions of the country’s present and prospects,” wrote Fisher. “As the president pushes his attacks, blaming Bezos for the closing of ‘fully tax paying retailers . . . all over the country,’ Amazon’s founder remains mute, his company declining to publicly engage a president with a different prism on reality.”
“Some of Trump’s aides and allies say his beef with Amazon, Bezos and The Washington Post, which Bezos owns separately from the behemoth online retailer he created, stems from Trump’s lifelong rivalry with billionaires who surpass him on lists of the planet’s richest men.”
Later on, the piece quotes Ryan, Baron and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt to the effect that Bezos has never attempted to interfere with the editorial content of the paper.
Baron’s handling the matter has played well in the Post newsroom, according to a reporter there, who called his Times interview “strong and clear.” The reporter, who was interviewed before the posting of Fisher’s story, said that the newsroom has mostly adopted the editor’s stiff upper lip stance, and there was not much desire for the more dramatic type of response CNN has favored.
The network has frequently used its PR Twitter feed to forcefully respond to the president’s comments, often immediately. On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted, “Check out the fact that you can’t get a job at ratings challenged @CNN unless you state that you are totally anti-Trump? Little Jeff Zuker, whose job is in jeopardy, is not having much fun lately. They should clean up and strengthen CNN and get back to honest reporting!”
The @CNNPR feed responded some 90 minutes later, “Once again, false. The personal political beliefs of CNN's employees are of no interest to us. Their pursuit of the truth is our only concern. Also, Jeff's last name is spelled Z-U-C-K-E-R. Those are the facts. #FactsFirst.”
A half-hour later, the account tweeted at the president again, “As for ‘challenged,’ CNN just finished its second highest rated first quarter in the past nine years. Those are the facts.” And then, “Interesting poll out of Monmouth: more people trust @CNN than @realDonaldTrump. Those are the facts. #FactsFirst.”
Several high-profile CNN personalities retweeted or commented on the PR accounts’ tweets, including Jake Tapper, Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo.
CNN and the Post’s different responses “reflect their different platforms and cultures,” Sesno said. “CNN is a louder, noisier place, and they have openly declared that they are going to call out pretty much every comment, tweet, half-truth and untruth that they hear, and they’re all over it.”
The Post, he said, reflects “the more deliberative deadline driven mindset culture of a newspaper, so they put their heads down and do their job.”
CNN spokesperson Matt Dornic said that the network was simply addressing Trump’s off-base allegations. “Correcting the record is not a partisan action. At least I hope not, for the sake of our country,” he said. “When a public figure, regardless of political persuasion, spreads untruths about CNN, it’s our obligation to correct the record.”
Markus Prior, a politics and public affairs professor at Princeton University who has studied cable news, called these types of exchanges “a double-edged sword” for CNN, which has long positioned itself as cable news’ credible middle-ground, between MSNBC and Fox News. On the one hand, he said, “Conflict sells and, if it’s conflict with the president, that sounds to me like a good thing for them.”
CNN has not shied away from reporting on its battles with Trump, whether covering conflicts between the White House and its own reporters, or discussing the president’s attacks on the network during its on-air panels. Its current advertising campaign, “Facts First,” is in many ways a giant subtweet aimed at the president.
On the other hand, Prior said, “if CNN takes this opportunity to emphasize their opposition outlet status, that may clash with the goal of objectivity and credibility.” In other words, if Trump’s goal is to make CNN seem appear less objective and trustworthy, the network risks playing into his hands.
So while Sesno said he did not object to CNN’s response, he preferred the Post’s.
“I am in the no extra mustard school,” he said. “The less said the better. Respond with the facts. There’s so much emotion out there, I think news organizations are going to be better served over time by just keeping their heads down and doing their jobs.”