WASHINGTON — It was a pathetic spectacle: TV news executives and anchors filing in to Trump Tower on Monday to be the president-elect’s whipping boys.

Donald Trump had summoned them for a talk, but it turned out to be part tongue-lashing, part perp walk. The TV news people had foolishly agreed that the session was “off the record,” leaving Trump and his aides free to characterize the media representatives as groveling while Trump berated them as liars.

“Trump Eats Press,” announced pro-Trump Breitbart News.

The New York Post: “Donald Trump’s media summit was a ‘(expletive) firing squad.’ “

Drudge: “Trump Slams Media Elite, Face to Face.”

Trump singled out for abuse CNN — the outlet that, with its endless live broadcasts of Trump speeches, did more than any other to win Trump the GOP nomination.

Many outlets (though not The Washington Post, happily) seem to expect and crave a return to business as usual after the election. They envision off-the-record chinwags with the new president. They expressed indignation when he ditched the press pool to go to dinner. They’re begging him to hold a news conference and devouring the crumbs he tosses their way. And ominously, they’re taking to heart the criticism that the media were too tough on him, and talking about recalibrating their approach to him to regain public approval.

‘Overplaying its hand’

Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, in a segment with me on MSNBC on Tuesday, said “the media is really overplaying its hand” in its coverage of Trump’s business conflicts of interest. “I think the media is on thin ice with the American people, very thin ice, and that they ought to just ... dial it back.”

My former editor Liz Spayd, now public editor at the New York Times, fretted that letters to the editor are at their highest level since 2001 and “many are venting about the Times’s coverage,” including “the liberal tint.” Trump, naturally, used this to further his campaign against the media, tweeting Tuesday that “the failing” Times “just announced that complaints about them are at a 15 year high. I can fully understand that.”

Journalists need to recognize we’re not going to win a popularity contest with Trump, and we shouldn’t try. Trump is not going to be appeased by friendlier coverage. He campaigned against the media, and he will continue to use the media as a foil. His party controls Congress, and conservatives will soon control the Supreme Court. If he can discredit the media, he’ll remove another check to his power.

Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, famously remarked that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Our 45th president would clearly prefer the former. He has shut out news organizations, including The Post, whose coverage he dislikes. He has threatened to restrict First Amendment press freedoms.

Pursuing public affection is a fool’s errand. The profession was never held in high public esteem. And the recent decline in approval is due entirely to Trump’s bashing.

Twitter: @Milbank.

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