The approaching presidency of Donald Trump poses daunting challenges for the journalists covering him, not merely because he has described them as dishonest, low-life scum or because of anxiety over whether the new administration will adhere to basic norms of access, such as daily briefings and regular news conferences.
The president-elect’s behavior presents fundamental questions, recurring daily if not hourly, about the best way to serve our audience. These are technical issues of craft, ordinarily of interest only to journalists themselves. In the Age of Trump, they are imbued with real-world consequences.
Should news organizations depart from customary restraint and label Trump’s falsehoods as outright lies? Should the media treat Trump tweetstorms with the rapt attention devoted to more traditional presidential statements, or refrain from such reflexive coverage in order to avoid being distracted, perhaps intentionally, from more important matters?
And given the physical constraints of headlines, how should news organizations handle a presidential claim – say, to have saved thousands of jobs – when the underlying details – the jobs may not be as numerous as advertised; the positions might have remained in the United States anyway – may be far more nuanced, if not disputed outright?
The media wrestled with these questions during the presidential campaign and adjusted their behavior. Fact-checks migrated from mere sidebars into essential components of the main story. Reporters steeped in a tradition of elevating objectivity above other demands increasingly deployed terms like “false” and “without factual basis” in straight news reports. Television chyrons called out the candidate’s falsehoods in real time.
The proper use of the L-word became a subject of debate recently when Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that he was reluctant to employ a term that connoted not mere falsehood but intention to deceive. “ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false,” Baker said. “It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” Ascribing that “moral intent,” he added, creates “the risk that you look … like you’re not being objective.”
Baker’s comments, amplified in a subsequent column, were immediately denounced by commentators on the left as illustrative of a dangerous willingness to normalize Trump’s dishonesty, and to value the appearance of objectivity over the necessity for scrutiny.
“The standard that Baker adopts – that there must be a provable intent to mislead – seems woefully inadequate to informing readers about what Trump is really up to here,” wrote The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent.
Count me with Baker. The media shouldn’t hesitate to label an assertion false, but it should be cautious about imputing motive. “This statement is false” or “This assertion is untrue” carries as much weight as “Trump lied,” and without the inflammatory baggage. It informs the audience but does so in a way more likely to leave the broadest audience willing to absorb the information.
Trump critics have also argued for disregarding – or at least, not constantly responding to – his tweets, on the theory that his goal is often as much to distract as it is to inform or, more likely, inflame. Here, again, deducing motive seems awfully subjective – and ignoring presidential commentary unwise, in whatever format it is delivered.
Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen, writing in The Washington Post, counseled “Stoic equilibrium” and “disregarding any and every tweet” by the new president. “If he can’t get his words and views expressed through Congress, through the White House press secretary, through official White House statements, they don’t merit our energies,” she argued.
But when a president speaks, whether from the Oval Office or through a 140-character message, the world listens. Perhaps Trump is attempting to deflect attention with the bright shiny object of the day, but that does not take away from the newsworthiness of his Twitter commentary, which illuminates matters of character, intellect and substance.
The Trump press corps shouldn’t respond to every provocation with equal intensity or outrage. But we are going to have to learn how to cover tweets and policymaking at the same time. In that quest, the limitlessness and instantaneity of the internet are journalism’s allies.
Perhaps the hardest problem – and the most important, given the millisecond modern attention span – involves how to accurately portray Trump’s conduct within the confined space of a headline, or a broadcaster’s capsule summary. This task will demand constant vigilance and endless creativity on the part of those of us committed to practicing journalism in the Age of Trump. It will, in some circumstances, require some diligence on the part of our audience to probe beyond the first impression.
Washington Post Writers Group