It's beginning to look like Donald Trump might be more than the political press can handle. I'm not sure whether that says more about him or the state of journalism today. But I am surprised at the fear of Trump that I am sensing on the part of some networks and cable channels.
At the GOP debate Aug. 6, Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked the candidate some tough questions about his history of calling women he didn't like "fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals." Trump not only issued a veiled threat in his answer, but within 24 hours was directly attacking Kelly in TV interviews and on Twitter.
But here he is still on top in the polls and looking to many as though he came out the winner, as Fox News chief Roger Ailes rushed to make peace with the 69-year-old businessman. If Trump's not bulletproof to the best shots the media can deliver, maybe he's at least made of the same Teflon that served Ronald Reagan so well when the press tried to turn up the heat on him.
Will the news media ever gain the upper hand and be able to use encounters with Trump to vet him for voters, or will the businessman and former reality-TV star continue to use the media to enhance his candidacy? The question has special relevance for TV journalists and interviewers, because Trump is primarily running a TV campaign with virtually no field operation and a social media effort that seems primitive compared to the sophisticated digital machine of the two Obama campaigns. TV is the field on which he is playing and winning big.
"He's the best deflector," said Chris Cuomo, co-host of CNN's "New Day" morning show. "He deflects better than white bounces off the sun. He is so good about making it about something else that he reminds me of the kid who, as soon as the glass breaks, quickly looks at his mom and says, 'It wasn't me.' He is that guy."
Cuomo, who went 30 minutes with Trump last week and held his own as well as or better than any TV interviewer to date, said, "So, I ask him, 'What about those things you said about women?' And he says, 'I'll tell you who has real trouble with women: Jeb Bush.'"
Acknowledging that the deflection worked to some extent, Cuomo said, "I didn't ask him about Jeb Bush, but he's brilliant at it. ... He is fast. He is nimble and he knows what works for him and what doesn't. And he knows a fundamental, almost hidden mystery of reporting: They never write down the questions; they write down the answers. He is very smart at making sure that he says what he wants to be on the record about."
That said, Cuomo still believes that over the long haul, Trump will make mistakes and gaffes.
"He talks too much not to," the former co-host of ABC's "20/20" said. "But he's so good in TV interviews that you have to throw the rulebook out and revert to a very different dynamic, which is active listening. You have to listen to everything he says. If you're one of these interviewers who looks down at their next question, he has eaten you for lunch before you've sat down at the table. Your frustration is his pleasure."
So, when it comes to Trump, reporters can't rely on a carefully drawn up list of scripted questions. Instead, they must be prepared to react off what he says.
But that can also result in Trump, not the interviewer, driving the conversation.
Jay Rosen, New York University journalism professor and author of the PressThink blog, said that even if an interviewer asks "tough" questions, the content of Trump's answers and how they do or don't fit in with his record as a businessman are often lost. Instead of checking whether what he says is true or consistent with his actions, because of his flamboyance, the post-interview analyses emphasize his combative response.
"When it comes to interviewing Trump, existing wisdom in the craft states as follows: A televised interview of a leading candidate like Trump should cover a range of issues — not just one or two — move the candidate off his talking points, and put the tough questions forward, following up when necessary to get answers," Rosen said.
But with Trump, he said, "You can succeed at putting tough questions to the candidate and fail at any 'checking' function because the controversy he generates off your display of toughness overwhelms the original check. The resolution of the controversy becomes the story, and Trump surges on."
That's what happened with Kelly's questions at the Fox debate.
Mark Feldstein, Eaton Professor of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, said he has to reach back to his two decades of work as an investigative reporter at ABC News and CNN to find interviews as challenging as Trump's.
And those would involve "basically people who have committed wrongdoing and want to conceal it," he said. "And the trick is to get beyond that veil."
Like Trump, some of those criminals "had huge egos and were filled with braggadocio," he said.
"And it's almost like martial arts where you use their own energy against them. A couple of times I had egomaniacal subjects — in one case a slumlord, in another a butcher-doctor — and their egos were so inflated that if I just was quiet and let them talk, they hung themselves," he added.
Feldstein says the material he got later in the interview when he got tougher in his questions "wasn't nearly as damming as what they did to themselves" when he was "quiet."
The most troubling aspect of Trump TV coverage is, outside of Cuomo's interview, how careful most of the cable channels and networks are now being with the GOP candidate since his counterattack on Kelly and Fox News following the debate.
Trump appeared on two of the least journalistic programs on Fox News this week: "Fox and Friends" on Tuesday morning, and Sean Hannity's "Hannity" in prime time that night. This was after his conversation Monday with Ailes.
Indicative of how wide a berth "Fox & Friends" steered around controversy, Trump's Twitter attacks on Kelly were never mentioned.
Hannity, who was Fox's go-to guy for kiss-up interviews with Sarah Palin back in the days when she mattered, was at his respectful best interviewing Trump in the lobby of Trump Tower.
Trump returned the favor: "Hannity" was the highest-rated cable news show of the night in the key demographic of viewers 25 to 54 — a position he rarely holds.
And it's not just Trump's ratings muscle. He also showed the ability to go on the attack on Twitter and mobilize social media enmity against a very popular show host in Kelly.
"He's an active enemy," Cuomo said. "People don't like having bad things said about them, especially in our business. ... We like to criticize; we don't like to get criticized. ... But you don't want Donald Trump telling everybody you suck."
Nor is it just Fox, which is in the trickiest position on Trump by nature of being an ideologically conservative channel, that is being super-careful with Trump.
NBC News and MSNBC declined to make anyone available for this column as Chuck Todd prepared to interview Trump for "Meet the Press."
Fox News also declined, instead referring me to statements about Trump from Fox show hosts made on other Fox shows.
I have been on this beat long enough to know the smell of fear from network and cable operations. And for all her early success in the polls and ability to generate massive online blowback against her critics, I didn't see any such fear of Sarah Palin in 2008. I think that's why the major flaws in her candidacy were exposed by Katie Couric and others by the time voters went to the polls. The TV press did its job.
I think we should all be afraid, very afraid — not of Trump, but of the timid, tail-between-the-legs turn that too much TV coverage started taking this week.