The Media Still Doesn't Know How To Deal With Trump
It is strikingly apparent that the media is still unable to adjust to the new world of constant and brazen lies which mirror the tactics of autocratic leaders that Trump and the Republican party has brought to American politics. In fact, despite recognizing their inability to properly cover Trump, the coverage in most of the media keeps on repeating the same mistakes that were made ever since Trump became a factor in the 2016 election campaign. Certainly, there are plenty of stories that document and highlight Trump’s lies. But for the most part, headlines and ledes simply repeat the lies that Trump and his administration tell and rely on the reader to delve well into the story to see where those lies are refuted, if they get refuted at all. In addition, because Trump can create so many news cycles in just one day, the media constantly finds itself regurgitating his lies and outrages before its analysis of those lies can take hold.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the local media’s response to Trump’s rallies. As Daniel Dale says, “No matter how offensive or plain weird Trump is at a rally, the visuals and headlines he gets in the local media are almost always good for him — it’s ‘president comes to town, excites faithful’ or ‘president likes local Republican, slams local Democrat’ almost 100% of the time”. But that kind of superficiality and cowardice extends to the national media as well. Take a look at how Trump’s fictional 10% tax cut for the middle class before the midterms is being carried by national news organizations. The headlines either simply regurgitate this fantasy plan or actually misstate what it is in order to pretend that Trump is making a serious proposal. Or look at how his baseless claims that the caravan of refugees was filled with terrorists was treated as front page news.
This trend to ignore reality was readily apparent in yesterday’s cringe-worthy first-ever in-depth interview with Jared Kushner conducted by Van Jones. Jared Kushner lied on his financial disclosure forms multiple times. He attempted to set up a secret back channel to Russia outside the purview of US intelligence spending. He recommended firing James Comey. It has been reported that four countries believe that Kushner could be manipulated due to his inexperience and his company’s financial difficulties. MBS has stated that he has Kushner in his pocket.
So Jones spent the first third of the 45 minute interview discussing Kushner’s efforts at prison reform. That effort has passed the House but has not yet been approved by the Senate. Trump himself has waffled back and forth in his support for prison reform. Yet Jones marveled how Kushner could get Pelosi and Trump to agree on a bill, which it is at present unclear that they actually do, as though prison and sentencing reform has never been a Democratic priority.
After that bizarre beginning, Jones finally pivoted to talking about Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi murder, although I don’t believe he ever mentioned the reporter and dissident by name. Kushner deflected all questions on Saudi Arabia as saying the administration was still in a “fact-finding” mode. Jones neglected to inquire about whether the US had prior intelligence on what the Saudis intended to do with Khashoggi or inquire about Saudi investments in Kushner’s or Trump’s businesses. As an afterthought, Jones asked about Kushner’s Mideast peace plan which has yet to be rolled out and again Kushner largely deflected the question. So far, at least, the actions of the Trump administration have been to give the Israelis everything they want and deny the Palestinians everything they need. Jones explored none of that.
The last third of the interview were filled with even more softballs about trade, how it was to work with Trump, and what little anecdote would surprise us about Trump. This was a sickening and sycophant interview and one would think that there was definitely a quid-pro-quo for such a softball interview. But if that was the case, then CNN’s viewers and the public have a right to know.
I know I’m picking on Jones but primarily because the interview was yesterday. Leslie Stahl’s 60 Minutes interview may have had far more substance but was in many ways just as ineffective. Yet it was treated by some in the press as a hard-hitting interview that showed how to deal with Trump. Just like trying to cover the barrage of Trump’s tweets, Stahl spent the whole interview jumping from subject to subject and never confronting Trump’s blather and deflections. Rather than asking specific questions, Stahl provided open-ended queries that allowed Trump to fall into the monologue mode that he displays at his rallies and Stahl struggled to ever get him back on track. Remarkably, Stahl didn’t even ask a question about the recent and incredibly detailed NY Times report that showed that the Trump family had engaged in decades-long and massive tax fraud.
As Daniel D’Addario writes, “So many of Stahl’s questions seemed premised on the notion that Trump could be brought to reason though earnest questioning that treaded somewhat lightly — but that signaled to viewers at home a certain set of values. This would have been a good playbook for a conservative-but-not-category-busting President Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, perhaps; all players could say their piece, and all could go home relatively unscathed. But even as Trump was unwilling to play along, the questions got no harder.” And that pretty much sums up the problem the media continues to have with Trump, playing by the old rules where Trump plays by his own.
It’s not like the media isn’t aware of this issue and the solutions are out there and easy to adapt. Stop repeating Trump’s lies in headlines and ledes. Stop letting Trump control the news cycle. Every press gaggle, every rally, and every outrageous tweet is not necessarily news but more often than not a provocation or deflection. Back in 2016, Robert Schlesinger of US News and World Report laid out the ground work for the new Trumpian environment. “Instead of assuming that Trump generally tells the truth but investigating statements that seem like they might be lies – standard operating procedure for most pols – reporters on the fact-check beat should flip the script and assume that if Trump is making a provable statement it falls on the error-to-lie spectrum…Run any Trump television appearance on, say, a five-minute tape delay and then correct his misstatements on a running, real-time basis…Bully the bully. Belying his self-professed image as a straight-talker, Trump can be incredibly slippery in interviews. One of his favorite techniques is to not answer questions with a spray of non sequiturs and irrelevancies, counting on reporters eventually moving on…Very simply include a disclaimer with any Trump appearance or utterance…saying that he lies or is otherwise in error a substantial amount of the time”.
Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, believes that the paper should only use the word “lie” infrequently “because if we use it all the time it loses its meaning”. Propagandists rely on repetition. To fight propaganda requires being equally repetitive. Apparently he has quickly forgotten how badly the Times repetitive stories about Hillary Clinton’s email practices damaged her campaign. And he apparently is unaware that the Republican party has propagated lies about their actual legislative intentions for decades through constant repetition that outlets like the Times gave credence to and are amplified by Fox News on the conservative propaganda machine. And he must have no knowledge of history and how demagogues and autocrats manage to gain power using lies and false provocations and then use that power to stifle an independent press.
Most of the major media outlets have yet to fully come to grips with their abject failure in the 2016 election. And they are by and large repeating many of the same mistakes again this year. Yes, there is a clear increase in articles that detail just how much lies and fear are driving the Trump and Republican message as we get closer to the election. But those analyses come out after the media itself has given the lies and fear broad currency. Depending on the results of this election, it may be too late for the media, and for us, to get it right.