27th Aug 2015
Donald Trump, a politician, and Jorge Ramos, a journalist, butted heads Tuesday night at a news conference in Iowa. Although politicians and journalists clash every day—exchanging insults and trading slights—this tussle has spilled into the quick-moving media stream because neither Trump nor Ramos is a normcore performer. Trump loves playing the cantankerous truth-teller, and Univision anchor Ramos subscribes to the provocateur school of journalism. See this piece from 2010, when President Barack Obama was the target of his pro-immigration scorn. As the Washington Post’s Michael E. Miller noted in quick turnaround, both are conflict junkies. The question wasn’t whether Trump and Ramos would collide but when.
Conservatives such as Charles C.W. Cooke and Allahpundit, who don’t necessarily admire Trump, rose to praise Ramos’ ejection. “Having a press credential in your pocket does not entitle you to behave like Code Pink,” wrote Cooke, while Allahpundit accused Ramos of “grandstanding” and “heckling.” Cooke and Allahpundit are right, of course, but a political news conference is not a memorial service at which all in attendance must keep their heads bowed. Nor is it a dinner party, necessitating the observance of high manners. A news conference is a news event at which the interviewers attempt to get the interviewee to say something he wished he hadn’t said, and on that score Ramos succeeded by breaking decorum and getting Trump to lash out, “Go back to Univision!”
Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world, though, for the news conference template—perhaps the most wearisome news-collection form—to get a serious rejiggering. The high solemnity of political news conferences confers upon a politician priestlike or kinglike status: He stands a foot or two higher than the mortals questioning him, looking down. He makes them wait for their turn to be called on. He begins and ends the questioning by decree. Far from opposing these imperious ways, many reporters, especially those who consider themselves members of the journalistic guild, applaud the arrangement. Not to get all Chomskian on you, but by virtue of their obedience, the guildsmen can count on the king’s attention and convert that attention into bylines.
As a work of culture-jamming, Ramos-style interruption works best when used frugally. It’s just too easy for the organizers of news conferences to ban a known agitator from the premises, and nobody wants to view (or participate) in a news conference that’s turned into a mosh pit. At the beginning of his presidency, Ronald Reagan pacified the howlers in attendance at news conferences. No more jumping up and down and shouting, “Mr. President! Mr. President!” Reagan’s people decreed. By 1987, Reagan had gone too far in controlling the news, holding only two news conferences in the first 10 months of the year. Journalists like Sam Donaldson of ABC News and Chris Wallace of NBC News were right to start screaming their questions any time he appeared in public. The “competition” between Donaldson and Wallace grew so heated, the New York Times reported, that the two “engaged in a shoving match over positions in the briefing room to broadcast their reports.” At least Ramos didn’t push anybody.
A modern article of journalistic faith holds that journalists should never become the story, and by putting himself out there to unsettle the Trump show, Ramos did just that. Again, not every news conference can be improved by a reporter’s showboating. But in the asymmetrical dynamic of a news conference, in which the interviewee holds all the power, an occasional breach of etiquette such as the one Ramos engaged in does not spell the end of civil culture. Ramos didn’t splash Trump with pig’s blood or anything, he merely violated convention in an attempt to break news on his own terms by speaking out of turn.
One strike against Ramos, offered by the journalistic orthodoxy, is that he’s not an “objective” journalist but an advocacy journalist, therefore he and his work can’t be trusted. Yet advocacy journalism has enjoyed a rich and glowing history in the United States: Such partisans as Tom Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Elijah Lovejoy, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, John Swinton and Jacob Riis broke vital news in decades past. Then came the muckrakers and their contemporary inheritors—Jessica Mitford, Michael Harrington, Ralph Nader, Jack Anderson, the gangs at Ramparts and Mother Jones magazines, and such current partisans as Glenn Greenwald, David Corn and others who have made important news without sacrificing their personal views.
By virtue of Trump’s immigration views and the coarse way he expresses them, his collision with Spanish-language media was inevitable. Add to that the fact that Trump has already filed suit against Univision for dropping his Miss Universe pageant, and his tirade against the network’s most high-profile journalist was doubly inevitable. Disrespected by Ramos, the always-ready-to-insult mogul did what he always does when he feels abused—he took out the verbal strap and started whipping. But it’s all for show—on both sides. The Trump-Ramos incident will likely redound to the mutual benefit of both. Trump wisely allowed Ramos back in the room and took his questions, positioning himself as the disciplinarian who can humanize himself when necessary by adding a sprinkle of mensch, as they volleyed back and forth. Ramos comes out of the rumble similarly fortified. He went after the king, he was banished by the king, he returned to the king’s court to battle the king once again.
In the name of news, this calls for a repeat match. I can’t wait for Ramos’ extended interview with Trump on Univision. May the best partisan win!
*Please consult an attorney for advice about your individual situation. This site and its information is not legal advice, nor is it intended to be. Feel free to get in touch by electronic mail, letters or phone calls. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship. Until an attorney-client relationship is established, please withhold from sending any confidential information to us.