Trump Airs Grievances, Fields Questions In Meeting With Top TV News Figures

Nov 21, 2016
Originally published on November 22, 2016 12:01 pm

Updated 12:01 p.m. ET Tuesday, with additional details.

President-elect Donald Trump invited a large group of television news anchors and executives from the nation's leading networks on Monday to reset a relationship that had badly frayed during a contentious campaign.

First, Trump gave them a piece of his mind. He castigated the networks for what he said was unfair coverage.

Trump, top aides and advisers including Kellyanne Conway, Reince Priebus and Sean Spicer met with executives and anchors from five major television networks at Trump Tower in New York City. In addition to admonishing the networks he also said he wanted to re-frame his relationship with the press and took extensive questions about policy and his intentions in office.

This account is largely based on an interview with an attendee who took detailed notes.

Among the participants from the news side were: ABC's George Stephanopoulos and David Muir; NBC's Lester Holt and NBC News President Deborah Turness; CBS' John Dickerson, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell; Fox News' Bill Shine and Jay Wallace; MSNBC's Phil Griffin; and CNN's Wolf Blitzer and Jeff Zucker. The substance of the meeting was supposed to be off the record.

While an off-the-record meeting is unusual, it's not unprecedented. Presidents periodically reach out to influential journalists to shape their coverage and improve understanding of their administrations' priorities. It is not unusual for Washington bureau chiefs to meet with administration officials to discuss logistics or to iron out disagreements that arise. Such meetings are often designated off the record, though details frequently leak out.

But many participants were photographed as they entered through the Trump Tower lobby. The New York Post's Page Six gossip site had a detailed version that appeared to put the event in the most commanding light possible as Trump dressed down the nation's TV news elite.

Trump started the meeting by saying how great it was for so many network news anchors to be there, calling it unprecedented and citing it as a reflection of the importance of his election. Blitzer noted that such meetings are a fairly common annual ritual between presidents and anchors ahead of State of the Union addresses. Trump then said the presence of the executives is what made the meeting unprecedented.

Trump lit out after Zucker, criticizing his former business partner (Zucker was head of NBC during Trump's Apprentice franchise on the network). He turned then to NBC, saying it's the worst, criticizing its reporters and saying it could not even come up with a flattering picture to broadcast. His complaint: photographs showing him with multiple chins. NBC's Turness replied that wasn't true, saying it was currently using a photograph showing Trump in a very flattering way. Trump also criticized a reporter who he said was in the room, who had moderated a debate but who he had been told was very upset when Hillary Clinton lost. Presumably that was a reference to ABC's Martha Raddatz or NBC's Lester Holt.

Conway interceded to say that the new Trump administration appreciated the press corps' hard work during the campaign and wanted a reset on its relationship with the press. Trump concurred and repeated the point, though he said he dislikes the phrase "reset" because it reminds him of Clinton's initial outreach to Russia when she was starting as secretary of state.

Trump said he wants a relationship with the press that is "cordial and productive." CBS' Gayle King asked what would constitute such a relationship, but it wasn't clear what that meant beyond off-the-record meetings such as that one, according to the participant in the meeting who spoke to NPR.

After that first 10 to 15 minutes, according to the attendee, Trump invited questions about his policies, appointments and intentions, showing an interest in details and implications.

The participant who spoke to NPR said Trump appeared as though he was irritated but working the refs, as when President George W. Bush complained during his presidency that the press was acting as the filter of his remarks and policies. However, a second source — a network official debriefed by colleagues who attended — said it did not feel like a reset of the relationship.

The off-the-record meeting lasted about an hour. Trump later posted a video on social media — bypassing the conventional press — to explain to the public, on the record, how the presidential transition was proceeding.

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President-elect Trump's on again, off again meeting with leaders of The New York Times is back on. He canceled the meeting with an announcement on Twitter this morning, but The Times now confirmed to NPR News they are in fact meeting today after all. All of this follows Trump's meeting with news executives and TV anchors yesterday. This is all about the new president's relationship with the media, and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is covering it all. Hi, David.


INSKEEP: What's happening with The Times?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, this morning at 6:16 a.m. Trump announced that he was canceling a meeting. He said that they had thought to change the terms and conditions of the sessions. It was very unfair. The Time was being nasty. He wouldn't do it. And then The Times responded, contradicting him utterly, saying no, no, no. He wanted to cancel the on-the-record portion of the meeting, the longer one with more people, journalists, reporters, columnists and editors and that that wasn't acceptable to them.

And it seems that he has ultimately yielded, that in fact after conferring with folks, Hope Hicks, spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, has said that he will be meeting with The Times. And The Times confirms that will be the case, that he'll meet off the record first with the publisher. That's Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the head of the controlling family of The New York Times Company, and that he will then meet, as planned initially, with reporters and journalists and editors.

INSKEEP: OK. So he will meet to discuss future terms of coverage with what is arguably the most important newspaper in the country but he'll also take some questions on the record, which he's done surprisingly little of since claiming his election quite some days ago now. So that's going forward. What about this other meeting, David Folkenflik, the one with TV network anchors and executives, which was supposed to be off the record?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it was supposed to be off the record. It leaked out very quickly. I think it's probable that leaked out from the Trump camp, but we don't know for sure because the initial part of the meeting, although he invited people in, said this is a wonderful gathering, all these anchors, all these executives here, the initial 10-15 minutes of the meeting he spent dressing them down. He talked - he looked at Jeff Zucker, the head of CNN. He said, you guys have been terribly unfair to me, and he - it's amazingly in part because Zucker had been a partner of Trump when Zucker was one of the top executives at - when Zucker was at NBC and when Trump had "The Apprentice" franchise.

And by the same token, he then looked at NBC and said, you guys are the worst. And he - about photographs which depicted him, he said, with a double chin. So it really was seen very personal to him. He said the coverage had been wrong and that he did want a reset with more fair coverage, more truthful coverage, he said, in the future.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear, because the phone dropped out a little bit there, you're saying the president-elect of the United States took time to complain about how many chins he appeared to have on some photographs that were used of him on NBC, right?

FOLKENFLIK: Astoundingly right. And, you know, that's a very personalized approach. Now, if you think about why he might have wanted to get away from being on the record today with The New York Times, you should - can look no farther than their home page or their front page of The Times. They had a story today about how his vast foreign holdings may represent an unconstitutional possession on his part because it suggests a violation of a clause against entanglement with foreign powers. And a lot of his deals abroad do rely on foreign governments and deals that he's cut with them there. So those are the kinds of questions that one would imagine and certainly hope that New York Times' journalists would be posing directly to him. Donald Trump hasn't had, you know, a press conference since his election or, you know, many months prior to it.

INSKEEP: And so, just to be fair, the bottom line is that after this fracas today, the president-elect is going to be taking on-the-record questions. There are a lot of serious, serious things going on, and we may have some opportunity to learn what he thinks about a few of them, right?

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. I mean, I think that it's a really important moment and that, you know, it's important for journalists to leverage whatever meetings and encounters they have with the president-elect to get on-the-record answers about his intentions, his policies, appointments and about some of the, you know, essentially unprecedented baggage he carries with him into office.

INSKEEP: David Folkenflik, thanks very much.


INSKEEP: He's NPR's media correspondent. He's in New York City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.