President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, rarely speaks publicly and is known to egg on the president in his trashing of the mainstream media.
But when he decided to break that silence, Bannon chose the venerable Charlie Rose as his interviewer and the CBS flagship Sunday night show, “60 Minutes,” as his venue. There could be no more mainstream choice.
Trump himself is a constant critic of the establishment press who delights in disparaging the (”failing”) New York Times and the (”Amazon”) Washington Post.
But last spring, when he wanted to put his own spin on the decision to withdraw the Republican health-care bill, he quickly made two phone calls to break the news: to The Post’s Robert Costa and the Times’ Maggie Haberman.
And when Trump wanted to get his message out about the firing of FBI Director James Comey, he sat down for an Oval Office interview with Lester Holt of NBC News.
“It’s a combination of stunning calculation and deep irony,” said Frank Sesno, director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, speaking of Bannon’s appearance on “60 Minutes.”
If the mainstream news media is the Trump administration’s archenemy, you’d think these fraught-with-significance appearances would go to friendly media outposts like Fox & Friends or Gateway Pundit or Alex Jones’s Infowars. Or perhaps even to Breitbart, headed by Bannon himself.
But the calculation dictates otherwise: “They know where the numbers are, and where the reach and the clout is, “ Sesno said. As usual with this president and his cohort, it’s all about the ratings.
And, Sesno added, the irony is clear: “They’re wading about as deep into the mainstream as they can get” after making media hatred the poisonous centerpiece of the Trump campaign and presidency. Stoking his base’s resentment of the news media sometimes seems to be the only constant for the ever-changing president.
The Bannon appearance on “60 Minutes” brought to mind Trump’s late November visit to the Times building in Manhattan, where he gave an extensive on-the-record interview, sat next to publisher Arthur Sulzberger, and made glowing remarks about the paper.
“I will say the Times is – it’s a great, great American jewel,” he gushed. “A world jewel.”
After Trump gave a scoop to the Times in July – saying that he would never have appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general if he had known that Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation – MSNBC’s Chris Hayes observed: “The sheer thirst that the president has for the New York Times approval is something to behold.”
Sometimes, of course, the technique backfires, or at least doesn’t go quite as planned.
Rose’s skillful questioning drew an extraordinary assessment from Bannon that he probably didn’t set out to make: that Trump’s firing of Comey was perhaps the worst political blunder in modern history.
And Holt extracted from Trump a damning explanation for why he fired the FBI director: “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’ “
In short, neither Charlie Rose nor Lester Holt was a pushover. They did their jobs well.
The big picture, though, is troubling.
When Trump and his allies constantly disparage the press – attempting to turn citizens against reality-based journalism – they undermine democracy.
That they do so, and then blithely turn to the very same news organizations to take advantage of their credibility, what we’ve got can be summed up in a single word: Hypocrisy.
Margaret Sullivan is a columnist for The Washington Post.