“I know it’s just for clicks,” Conway adds, again attributing a motive to the reporter without evidence, “but you’re going to have to give me, like, a journalistic reason” to mention George Conway. It is “lazy,” she says (adding that she means the word “respectfully”) to bring up her husband’s tweets. “Do you talk about other people’s spouses in your pieces, ‘’cause I’ve been looking around, I haven’t learned a single thing from any of your pieces.”
Yilek offers to refer Kellyanne Conway to her editor, prompting the president’s counselor to say, “I’ve known your editor since before you were born.” Conway adds, “I’m just trying to give you a chance to explain why you think what you wrote qualifies as breaking news or reporting.”
The reporter answers: “I don’t know that I have to explain that to you.”
Read: Kellyanne Conway, phantom czar
This is where the true power dynamic of the call comes into focus. It was Conway’s office that called Yilek, after all. Apparently, a Conway aide had to call more than once to get through. The reporter gamely, and courteously, fields Conway’s complaints. But ultimately, she does not have to do what Conway demands, nor is it entirely clear what Conway realistically wants. The story will not be unpublished. Eventually the reporter says to Conway, “Look, I’ve got to go. I’ve got a meeting to run to.”
The president has spent years now denigrating the media in ways large and small, from the ritualistic claim of “fake news” to his periodic branding of journalists as “the enemy of the people.” This week, the White House even circulated a story that the president wanted government agencies to cancel any subscriptions they may have to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Journalists and publishers have warned the president that his accusations may incite violence, and that he has already inspired authoritarians abroad. These concerns are real. Yet Conway’s phone call demonstrates that the fundamental order of this free society has yet to change. For all their power, a president or his advisers cannot force a citizen to say (or unsay) anything.
The media squander much of their power. They are often wrong or misled, and even more often starved for resources to report on a complicated world. In a general sense, Conway was not wrong to complain that many news stories are written “just for clicks.” Yet much influence remains in journalists’ hands.
Possibly no one understands this better than the president, who built his brand by constantly working the media. As president, he has promoted friendly news outlets while trashing those he deems hostile. Yet most of the media still report independently. His denunciations of journalists, dangerous though they may be, often seem like howls of helpless rage. (Some other presidents have howled similarly, though usually in private.)