Trump’s Thin Skin

by Joe Peyronnin Hofstra Journalism Professor 01.06.2016

Donald Trump unleashed a series of angry attacks on the press, including personal insults directed at some reporters attending his news conference Tuesday. He called an ABC News reporter “a sleaze” and at another point said, “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people I have ever met, I have to tell you.” Of course, Trump has benefitted from more that $2 billion in free media coverage so far this campaign, according to a New York Times report in March, and his 40 minute news conference was carried live on the cable news channels.

Trump’s harsh attack appeared to serve many purposes for him. First, taking on the press makes him look strong to his supporters because it is so unpopular with Republicans. Second, Trump intended to change the subject from legitimate press inquiries about his handling of the veterans’ fundraiser into a story about the unfair press. Trump was also attempting to draw attention away from growing questions about the unethical practices of the now defunct Trump University, which is the subject of a federal lawsuit that has resulted in the release of embarrassing testimony from former employees.

The issue that triggered Trump’s diatribe Tuesday was $6 million he and his campaign spokespersons had repeatedly claimed since January that he had raised to help America’s veterans. Trump had cancelled his participation in a Fox News debate in January because he was mad with how the network was treating him, and instead held a rally to raise money for veterans. At the fundraiser he announced that the event had raised $6 million, including $1 million from Donald Trump himself.

Some veterans’ organizations subsequently raised questions about how much money was pledged, and exactly where it was being donated. Reporters began to follow up on the status of the money. Last week The Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Four months after fundraiser, Trump says he gave $1 million to veterans group.” Tuesday Trump provided details of how much money he said had been raised and to what veterans’ organizations the funds had been distributed. He also displayed a copy of the $1 million check he had written just last week to a veterans’ organization.

Trump campaigns on his success as a businessman, repeatedly saying he knows how to get things done, and that “I am a unifier.” But he has consistently shown he has thin skin when it comes to criticism, and his default tactic is to immediately attack his critics. Most often his vitriolic retorts are in the form of personal insults rather than facts.

“The press should be ashamed of themselves,” he said Tuesday, “You make me look very bad.” He singled out political reporters as “Unbelievably dishonest.” He sarcastically referred to a CNN reporter as “A real beauty.” In January, Trump took on Fox News anchor Megan Kelly after she asked some tough questions at a debate. Trump tweeted, “I refuse to call Megyn Kelly a bimbo, because that would not be politically correct. Instead I will only call her a lightweight reporter.” And at rallies Trump regularly points to the camera stand and calls the press “slime” and “disgusting” to the cheers of his followers.

Some observers have said that Trump does not understand that the role of a free press is to hold candidates accountable for their actions and what they say. In Founding Father Thomas Jefferson’s words, “The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure.” But Trump knows exactly what he is doing, and he does not want to keep the waters pure, otherwise he would release his tax returns. And so far his bullying has earned him the Republican Party’s nomination for president. A reporter asked Trump if Tuesday’s press conference was an indication of what his White House press conferences would be like. “It’s going to be like this,” Trump responded.

Memo to Donald J. Trump: your press tirades will not have a chilling effect on the press. Reporters will continue to ask you tough questions, along with all the other candidates, because it is their job. And the questions will only intensify in the months leading up to the election given the future of the country is at stake. You and some of your supporters may think your press attacks are effective, but it is really a sign of weakness, and an indication you have a lot to hide.

The truth will ultimately prevail. Remember President Richard Nixon?

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Joe Peyronnin is an associate journalism professor at Hofstra University and an adjunct journalism professor at New York University. He also is an investor and adviser to new media companies. In 1999 he founded Telemundo Network News and led it as its Executive Vice President until 2006. There he created and launched several news programs, including Sin Fronteras, Noticiero Telemundo Fin De Semana, Enfoque, and A Rojo Vivo. He led Telemundo to its first national Emmy Award for its round the clock coverage of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Before Telemundo, he served as a media and communications consultant at Osgood, O'Donnell & Walsh. In 1995-96 he was President of Fox News, where he put together the core organization of what would become the Fox News Channel. Prior to that, Peyronnin served six years, 1989-1995, as Vice President and Assistant to the President CBS News, the division's number two executive, where he oversaw global newsgathering and news programming, including 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, The CBS Evening News, Sunday Morning and CBS This Morning. From 1987-89 Peyronnin served as CBS News Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief, the news organization's largest bureau. From 1979-86 he worked for The CBS Evening News as the senior Washington producer, and earlier a producer, where he regularly covered the White House, Congress, political conventions and national elections. He also covered major international assignments, including all US-Soviet summits, Economic summits, Israel's 1981 invasion of Lebanon, President Reagan's 1984 trip to China and a series of 1984 reports from inside the Soviet Union. Peyronnin began his career at CBS in 1970 as a local news producer and assignment editor in Chicago. He has received three journalism awards, including two Emmys. He appeared in 1994 edition of Who's Who in America, and, in 2011, he received an award from Llamba Pi Eta, the National Communications honorary society. Peyronnin is currently Executive Vice Chairman of the Mental Health Association of New York City board of directors, which honored him in 2004. He is Trustee at Gracie Square Hospital in New York City, and a former Trustee of Columbia College Chicago. He is a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. He holds an MBA degree from the Walter Heller School of Business at Roosevelt University, Chicago, and a BA from Columbia College Chicago. He lives in NYC with his wife and daughter.

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