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NYT Trump Interview Makes Waves, But Did Reporters Go Too Easy?

Though an explosive interview with President Donald Trump conducted by the New York Times published Wednesday evening resulted in breaking news bulletins across the media and provided an inside look at Trump's state of mind regarding current events, including health care, some in the journalistic community are expressing disappointment at the lack of substantive questions asked of the president - adding to growing concern about how the press engages with the current White House.

Allowed to ramble on in vague terms about health care policies he appears to know little about, the three interviewers were faulted for not holding Trump to account regarding specific aspects of the various proposals or the ongoing failure of Republicans in the Senate.

The president spoke about his frustration by the recent media coverage of the recent health care legislation which failed after the Republican leadership was unable to secure enough votes from the party, comparing the attempt to pass Trumpcare in the first six months of his term to other attempts to pass health care reform.

He also acknowledged that taking away health insurance from Americans after the Affordable Care Act allowed 20 million more people to obtain coverage was a difficult task. But his explanation of the details of health care policy appeared garbled, and based on excerpts of the interview, the reporters did not ask for clarification.

TRUMP: So pre-existing conditions are a tough deal. Because you are basically saying from the moment the insurance, you're 21 years old, you start working and you're paying $12 a year for insurance, and by the time you're 70, you get a nice plan. Here's something where you walk up and say, "I want my insurance." It's a very tough deal, but it is something that we're doing a good job of.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, NYT: Am I wrong in thinking - I've talked to you a bunch of times about this over the last couple years, but you are generally of the view that people should have health care, right? I mean, I think that you come at it from the view of . . .

TRUMP: Yes, yes.

The published transcript of the interview shows no questions reflecting the disconnect between Trump's supposed view that Americans should have health care and his party's health care proposals, the latest of which would take away coverage from 32 million people over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Dan Froomkin of The Intercept expressed dismay at the lack of pointed questions in the transcript.

Comedian and New York Times columnist John Hodgman also offered a critique, noting that allowing the president to speak at length is not without value, but that Trump should also be forced to go on the record about policy specifics.

The Times interview followed weeks of reporting by media outlets about the Republican health care plan, during which Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway insisted on ABC's This Week that Medicaid cuts were not part of the legislation, and Vice President Mike Pence declared that the bill would "strengthen and secure" Medicaid. Those claims came despite the nonpartisan CBO's statement that the government would spend 772 billion fewer dollars on the program over the next decade under the law.

At Media Matters, Matt Gertz noted that the press may not be able to afford many more squandered chances to directly question the president on his plans for the country.

The failure of the Times to ask the president tough questions about his health care position is all the more important because there have been vanishingly few opportunities for reporters to do so. The president has largely retreated from press scrutiny in recent months. Trump has not held a full press conference since February; he broke with tradition and did not hold one following the G20 meeting earlier this month. His only on-camera interviews in the last two months have been with the pro-Trump propagandists at Fox and, most recently, with The 700 Club's Pat Robertson, who has said the president's critics serve Satan.

When mainstream journalists have had the opportunity to ask Trump to discuss the legislation, they've largely dropped the ball.

Meanwhile, at Wednesday's White House press briefing, independent journalist Ksenija Pavlovic of Pavlovic Today disobeyed the administration's recent regulations for the briefings. Press conferences have been held off-camera since June 29, and recordings of any kind have been prohibited. The White House press corps has generally observed the new rules, but Pavlovic surreptitiously recorded the audio of the briefing and posted it to her Twitter account.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

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Comments welcome.

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1. From Steve Rhodes:

First, having three reporters participate in an interview is a recipe for disaster. One is sufficient!

Second, reporters need a strategy going into an interview - particularly an interview with the president! Having a list of questions is not the same as a strategy, and there is no indication to me, given the transcript, that there was a strategy. For example, sometimes it's best to focus an interview on a single topic. In this case, it could have been health care! I know it's hard - you want to ask so much! - but it often serves readers/citizens best.

Third, FOLLOW-UP. One of the first things you are supposed to learn in Interviewing 101 is to eschew simply going down your list of questions - waiting for an answer simply so you can ask the next question - and instead, listen to the answer, and follow-up if it's insufficient or unclear. Nearly every Trump answer meets this criteria! Instead, we get a lot of obsequious segues and space-fillers.

For example, instead of "What do you mean that you buy health insurance for $12 when you're young?" we get "You are generally of the view that people should have health care, right?" There is so much wrong with that "question," including the fact that even those elected officials who want to take health care away from millions of people believe that people should have it - if they "work hard enough" to deserve it! It's a question that offers the subject an escape route instead of a question that presses the subject and tightens the focus in a way that doesn't allow a subject to get away with waving off questions with broad, nonsensical proclamations.

So, yes, the interview made news because the president is nuts, but anyone could put a microphone in front of this guy and get a "scoop." We demand, rightly so, more and better from the New York Times.



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