Hours after NBC’s Peter Alexander fact-checked President Donald Trump during Thursday’s press conference — twice correcting Trump’s boasts about the size of his electoral-college victory — the 40-year-old reporter was still harvesting praise.
“Watch this. Watch this. Watch this. Everyone NEEDS to see this. This journalist should be wearing a cape. He’s a super hero,” tweeted actress Alyssa Milano.
“Thanks, Alyssa.” Alexander tweeted in reply.
Alexander was following in the footsteps of Jake Tapper, Matt Lauer, Jim Acosta and other network veterans who’ve rocketed to social-media stardom for talking back to Trump or his best-known surrogate, Kellyanne Conway.
Though the willingness among TV reporters to fact-check Trump and his team is not new, the heightened spotlight of the White House and the awareness that millions of Trump critics are waiting in the Twittersphere, egging them on, seems to have increased the frequency of such encounters.
But such moments also appear to be encouraged by Trump himself, and may play into his favorite narrative about the “fake news media” as his “enemy,” as he tweeted on Friday afternoon. On Thursday, Trump reveled in the spectacle, purposely calling on many anchors whom represent news channels he’s often bashed, like CNN.
Ultimately, it is a mutually beneficial relationship, said Dylan Ratigan, former MSNBC anchor and founder of Helical Holdings, an American resource technology company.
“Anytime Donald Trump can generate a sense of conflict or hostility toward the mainstream media it’s great for his supporters, for his base, and any time a member of the mainstream media can portray themselves as being hard on Donald Trump is great for their supporters, for their base,” Ratigan said. “There’s a mutual benefit to both participants because Trump voters want to see him confront the media and the audiences of the television networks want to see the hosts confront Donald Trump, so it’s like getting to see your favorite fight happen.”
On Tuesday the celebrated combatant was Alexander’s NBC colleague Lauer, exclaiming “that makes no sense” as Conway, whose title is senior counselor to the president, tried to explain the timeline of how the president became aware that National Security Advisor Michael Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence about Flynn’s alleged discussions of lifting Russian sanctions with Kremlin officials.
The average “Today” show tweet gets a few hundred retweets and likes. The “Today” show tweet highlighting Lauer’s blowback of Conway was at more than 10,000 retweets and more than 19,000 likes as of Friday.
Meanwhile, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, Jake Tapper, who has had several headline-making interviews with senior members of Trump’s staff, has made the rounds of several late-night shows and is being heralded in the pages of Vogue as a “journalistic hero.”
Tapper also began trending on Twitter when a report said the host of the afternoon political hour “The Lead with Jake Tapper” would become the target of GOP operatives who want to “destroy him.” Supporters started to tweet tongue-in-cheek “dirt” about Tapper, like that he is a “closeted lover of knitting,” with the hashtag #TapperDirtFile.
And Tapper’s CNN colleague, Jim Acosta, earned his own headlines for going mano-a-mano with Trump at Thursday’s press conference about his network’s ratings, Trump’s seemingly contradictory claim that “the leaks are real but the news is fake,” and other points.
A cable news executive, speaking on background because he is not authorized to comment on the record, said that these types of on-air confrontations aren’t new — pointing to veteran anchor Sam Donaldson’s shouted exchanges with Ronald Reagan, sometimes with a helicopter flapping, and longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather’s infamous back-and-forth with George H.W. Bush.
But while those moments were sometimes held up by conservatives as evidence of liberal bias in the press corps, they weren’t the norm for relations with the famously affable Reagan and gentlemanly Bush: Trump, by contrast, has willingly taken on the role of media gladiator, encouraging reporters to talk back to him by asking them questions at press conferences and launching into attacks on their integrity and that of their networks.
“There’s literally nothing new in this — except that everything has a heightened sense of drama because the president goes after news organizations directly,” the executive said. “This is about him going after the media rather than the media standing up to him.”
“The media are just doing what they always do,” the executive added. “The White House is making these interviews and making these journalists larger-than-life figures by punching down to them. The Trump effect is not that these guys are grandstanding, it’s that they’re singling them out and are so negative to them.”