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The Media's Trump Playbook Isn't Working
On what comes next
Two notable voices in media, Jay Rosen and Ross Douthat, had an intriguing dialogue in the New York Times last month. Douthat is a Times columnist, a heterodox conservative who is far more readable than his colleague Bret Stephens. The Times employs no one who actually represents the Trump wing of the Republican Party—and that is upwards of 80 or 90 percent of the GOP now—but Douthat is an able of explainer, for liberal audiences, of what’s going on over there. Rosen is an NYU professor and astute media analyst, a voice I’ve admired for a long time. (I’m an adjunct at NYU and I appeared, back in 2017, on a panel about Trump and the media at NYU with Rosen.) Rosen’s ideas, and his blog in particular, have influenced my thinking in the past.
The Times exchange came after Douthat published a column in December entitled “Can the Press Prevent a Trump Restoration?” Douthat, a critic of Trump, argued that the prestige media—CNN, the Times, the Associated Press, and others—needed a different approach to Trump if he runs for president again, given that trust in the press continues to crater. “There is a school of thought that holds that if Donald Trump sweeps back into power in 2024, or else loses narrowly but then plunges the United States into the kind of constitutional crisis he sought in 2020, the officially nonpartisan news media will have been an accessory to Trumpism,” Douthat wrote. “It will have failed to adequately emphasize Trump’s threat to American democracy, chosen a disastrous evenhandedness over moral clarity and covered President Biden (or perhaps Vice President Kamala Harris) like a normal politician instead of the republic’s last best hope.”
Pushing back against Rosen and the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan and Dana Milbank, who all roughly espouse this view, Douthat argued that they are taking a position that “actually demagogues, feeds polarization and makes crises in our system much more likely.”
There were ways in which the national news media helped Trump in his path through the Republican primaries in 2016, by giving him constant celebrity-level hype at every other candidate’s expense. But from his shocking November victory onward, much of the press adopted exactly the self-understanding that its critics are still urging as the Only Way to Stop Trump — positioning itself as the guardian of democracy, a moral arbiter rather than a neutral referee, determined to make Trump’s abnormal qualities and authoritarian tendencies the central story of his presidency.
The results of this mind-set, unfortunately, included a lot of not particularly great journalism. The emergency mentality conflated Trumpian sordidness with something world-historical and treasonous, as in the overwrought Russia coverage seeded by the Steele dossier. It turned figures peripheral to national politics, from Nick Sandmann to Kyle Rittenhouse, into temporary avatars of incipient fascism. It invented anti-Trump paladins, from Michael Avenatti to Andrew Cuomo, who turned out to embody their own sort of moral turpitude. And it instilled an industrywide fear, palpable throughout the 2020 election, of any kind of coverage that might give too much aid and comfort to Trumpism — whether it touched on the summertime riots or Hunter Biden’s business dealings.
Rosen, meanwhile, has long contended that the news media, in its strain for “objectivity” and a kind of “false balance,” tries to downplay the threat the Republican Party poses to democracy. The stakes are lowered in favor of some version of the horse-race. A left-leaning Democrat, Rosen has written and tweeted that major news outlets, from the Times on down, must begin to emphasize, whenever possible, the emergency Trump poses to the republic. Whatever they are doing now simply isn’t enough. In a dialogue with Douthat on a Times podcast, Rosen made his views quite plain.
“We have a situation that is unanticipated by the craft of political journalism. Rather than two roughly equal parties fighting it out for advantage, we now have a radical imbalance between the two parties,” Rosen said. “One is normal. And by normal, I don’t mean angelic or that it has all the answers or it’s the one right way to go, but it’s just a normal party.”
This is true. Democratic politicians are not trying to overturn prior election results. Rosen proceeds to argue journalists must “rethink their practices, in a sense, from the beginning because the premises underneath it have collapsed.” This is not a contention I’d argue against myself. We do live in a remarkable and uncertain moment where a former president is insisting, wrongly, an election was stolen from him and is likely basing another run for the White House on this false premise.
Douthat then asks Rosen a pivotal question: “What is it? What is the recalibration?”
“Well, it begins with a sense of freaking proportion,” Rosen shoots back. “I mean, Donald Trump is not just a wild and crazy guy who happened to luck into the presidency. He’s, in a sense, systematically building American democracy and is preparing for the final stage of that. It’s an autocratic movement that he is heading. And he’s breaking almost every bipartisan norm for how candidates and presidents should behave and attacking the very heart of the democratic system, which is the integrity of the vote … And so I think this is what journalists have to recognize, not that they should be nice towards Biden, but that, when they are critical, they have to set what he’s doing within this larger context, and that’s not always what I see.”
“But I want to know what that means in practice, though,” Douthat asks. “I want to know what the practice is.”
“Well, to some degree, that’s up to journalists, because, when you tell them from the outside what to do, you don’t usually get a very good response,” Rosen responds. “But I think one thing we need is a kind of urgency index … We need some way of knowing how far from that collapse are we. Are we at the 11:59 stage? Do we have a little bit more time? Are things getting better? What are the key indicators of democratic collapse? I should be able to open The New York Times or tune in to the news networks and know where we are in disaster space?”
I only reproduced some of the transcript. I urge you, when you have time, to read all of it. In good faith, two close watchers of the democratic project are grappling over what to do next. As a journalist in this country, still proudly so, it’s on my mind too. What would an urgency index look like? Could the media truly relay that we are on the brink of a great and utter collapse? Rosen asks for reporters to consult with “what political scientists and historians who studied democratic collapse have determined so that they can find out what those key indicators are.”
All fair, after four years of Trump and maybe four more on the way. But what if this was done already? Rosen’s arguments would have greater validity and valence in mid-2015 or late 2016 or even the early days of the Trump era, when it was all fresh and the journalists were wrestling with how to cover a president who manufactured outrage cycles almost hourly. Before Trump became president, I argued it would be vital for journalists to focus on his actions, not merely his words or tweets, because Trump was someone who spoke with no forethought and constantly made empty threats. Remember the registry for Muslims? Rewriting libel laws? Making it illegal to burn the flag? Trying to throw Hillary Clinton in prison? None of it came to pass.
For at least four years, most mainstream media outlets and left-leaning cable stations did treat Trump like an emergency. Historians were consulted, per Rosen’s urging, and became celebrities in their own right. Michael Beschloss, a fixture of the television circuit, was warning, almost weekly, of the danger Trump posed to America. Timothy Snyder, the Holocaust historian, was granted many opportunities in widely-read outlets to opine on how Trump was leading America down the road to fascism. Masha Gessen’s star rose as she was called upon to draw parallels between post-Soviet Russia and the Trump-dominated United States. The New York Times upgraded its style guide, proudly calling out Trump for lying and spouting racism. Prestige magazines, the New Yorker and the Atlantic in particular, were in constant competition to inform their readers of Trump’s mania and norms-busting. At the height of the Russiagate fervor, the New Yorker ran a cover of Vladimir Putin entirely in Russian and later, in 2020, conducted a simulation among staff writers of what a Trump military coup would look like—this was how Jeffrey Toobin would end up exposing himself. At the Atlantic, entire special issues on the future of American democracy were commissioned. Barton Gellman has produced many thousands of words on how Trump’s Republican Party could destroy our declining republic. Jonathan Chait’s New York cover story positing, without much tangible evidence, that Trump was a long-running asset for Russia got plenty of attention.
Douthat could have probably been more pointed. What more does Rosen want, exactly? One trouble with the urgency index is that it would be entirely subjective, with no clear criteria to undergird it. Other nations that fell into autocracy do not offer serious parallels for the United States. Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s is often invoked, but even Timothy Snyder would concede—if pressed off the record, perhaps—that the America of the 2020s is not so ripe for a fall. German democracy was a decade old when Adolf Hitler ended it in 1933. After the First World War, Germany’s economy was in shambles, and against a backdrop of profound economic instability and rapid inflation, an experiment in democracy was not enough to counter a fascist strongman, especially someone who was supported by elites desperate to counter the spread of socialism. The United States is more than 200 years-old, its citizens enjoy economic abundance far beyond the dreams of a 1920s German, and the military is not following the lead of an insurgent like Trump. January 6th was a travesty, a violent and deadly riot, but there was never a time when the most powerful military on Earth was committed to aiding an outgoing president in forcibly seizing control of the country. Any historian will tell you no successful coup occurs without a military buy-in—ask Sisi in Egypt, if you’d like—and Trump, forever fulminating against the “deep state,” had little purchase with the Pentagon or the CIA.
It is true, as Rosen laments, the media too often defaults to a model of politics and campaign coverage that emphasizes process over substance, that might treat a Trump-Biden rematch as another ordinary contest between two competing political parties, red against blue. But that critique, given how oppositional the leading media outlets of the country were toward Trump, seems less likely to hold if Trump or a Trump-like contender emerges by 2024. The Times, CNN, the New Yorker, Vox, and others are not going to shy away from portraying Trump as an incendiary political figure who can subvert American democracy. There has been abundant coverage of Trump’s failed attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election and major news outlets have assigned reporters to follow efforts for 2024. There will be no Rosen-like democracy index on A1 of the Times, but there will be many well-compensated journalists filing dispatches from the election boards of key swing states. If the alarm isn’t being sounded, there are at least journalists and editors prepared to mash a button or three.
Douthat is more attuned to the dangers of overreach. In their zeal to frame Trump as a menace and a threat—to prove to people like Rosen they were not bloodless nonpartisans or patsies—the media would sometimes fail to accurately report on events and controversies of that era. Trump was not automatically autocratic and obliterating democratic norms for questioning the validity of NATO or demanding European countries spend more on their own military defense. He was not psychotic for initiating awkward diplomacy with North Korea, when all other avenues had failed. He was not even a tyrant for attempting, like Barack Obama, to shift America away from further confrontations with Russia, an ailing autocracy that poses no direct military threat to our nation’s future. He was not a virulent racist for trying to contain Covid with a travel ban on China, where the virus had originated.
Trump was a deranged and objectively terrible president. In part, as the historian Corey Robin has convincingly argued, Trump was a rather weak president, accomplishing little and leaving behind a frail policy legacy. When Republicans, under Trump, had full control of the federal government, they could not even repeal the Affordable Care Act, their primary obsession over the course of the 2010s. Instead, there was legislation to cut corporate taxes, a rather banal if unfortunate use of right-wing power. Trump, at the behest of the energy industries, tore up a lot of environmental regulations that Biden has since restored and did pull America from the Paris climate accords, which Biden promptly rejoined. Trump’s greatest impact was in the appointment of Supreme Court justices and federal judges, but some of that was sheer happenstance—getting three vacancies in four years—and the rest lay with Mitch McConnell, who meticulously oversaw the project. Trump picked names off a sheet of paper. One reality of the Trump presidency, which not enough liberals could accept, was that it would not have departed much, in substance at least, from whatever a President Ted Cruz or Marcio Rubio would have pursued. President Cruz, certainly, would have appointed Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch to the bench. Perhaps Brett Kavanaugh, Anthony Kennedy’s preferred successor, would not have been right-wing enough for the Texan.
How, on the balance, to cover all of this? One dark reality is that trust in media continues to decline. This mirrors the overall plunge in faith Americans have in almost all institutions. No single course correction among journalists can immediately change these numbers, which are now tied to societal and technological forces that have increasingly weakened our ability, as a nation, to form consensus realities. Fragmentation of audiences through social media and overtly partisan news sources, like Fox and MSNBC, have contributed to this. Beyond broadcast news, which will steadily lose viewership as younger audiences stop subscribing to cable, there is no American equivalent of the BBC, a place where mass audiences of differing opinions can gather. If nothing, in the short-term, can alter this grim picture, what’s become apparent is that otherwise nonpartisan news outlets adopting the reflexively oppositional stance toward Trump and the GOP—of attempting, in Rosen parlance, to cover the right-wing with “freaking proportion”—is not working, either. After Joe Biden’s marathon press conference on Wednesday, the PBS anchor and NBC contributor Yamiche Alcindor tweeted that “Pres Biden, in the longest news conference in presidential history, made news, pushed back on critics, called out lies, took responsibility for mistakes he believes he made, expressed surprise at GOP, talked foreign policy and didn't lash out on reporters. Quite the change.” Alcindor, with a wink and a nod, makes it plain what she thinks: Biden is a normal, even welcome president in a way Trump never was. She is doing what Rosen has demanded of her. We know what side she is on. It’s a tweet that could have been composed by Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary.
Media neutrality is a lie and so is our butchered definition of objectivity. Two sides needn’t be weighed equally if they are not equal. The climate change deniers do not need equal time with climate scientists. But it’s also possible the media, in its desire to distance itself from the sepia-toned and stodgy twentieth century—of reporters so desperate to prove they are above the fray they do not even vote—has overlearned the lesson, veering too far in the direction of misguided advocacy.
Objectivity, as defined by Walter Lippmann a century ago, was about applying the scientific method to journalism, beginning with a hypothesis and trying to prove it through facts and pivoting elsewhere if that’s where the facts led. It was about trying to bring some form of academic rigor and critical thinking to a profession that, in the chaotic nineteenth century, often lacked it. Under this definition, openly progressive outlets like the Nation and the conservative National Review can practice objectivity as long as they aren’t inventing facts wholesale or engineering narratives before the act of reporting even begins. The great crisis in media remains economic, but the second or third-order challenge is regaining trust from a public that has begun to move on. The call for “moral clarity” in journalism, if well-intentioned, will not do this. Open-minded inquiry remains critical. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their foundational journalism textbook, The Elements of Journalism, “for clarity means a lack of ambiguity. It implies certainty. And certainty is no sibling of inquiry.” More damningly, they argue: “If moral clarity is the goal, neo-Nazis would claim they have it; so would jihadists. Indeed, moral clarity is a hallmark of extremism.” I know I am right—therefore I must be.
Under Trump, a sprint toward “clarity” led to enough shoddy reporting and general confusion. In May 2020, Trump was “fact-checked”—the equivalent of the media referee blowing the whistle on him—for claiming coronavirus vaccines could come “by the end of the year if we can, maybe before.” NBC was alarmed enough to proclaim “testing and production of a vaccine for the public is still at least 12 to 18 months off, and that anything less would be a medical miracle.” In another bid for clarity, mainstream media outlets in 2020 warned Americans against wearing masks to stop the spread of coronavirus. A Washington Post fact-checker once sneered at the idea COVID-19 could come from a Wuhan lab. Meanwhile, the Nick Sandmann saga revealed the danger of allowing an easy Trump-driven narrative—a boy in a MAGA hat—to define an encounter that was far messier and stranger.
More recently, another Associated Press fact-check of Trump, who continues to stage rallies in advance of a possible third presidential bid, demonstrated how confounding the media’s approach to Trump has become. At the rally, Trump fulminated against new health guidance in certain jurisdictions, including New York, pertaining to how Pfizer’s anti-viral Covid drug is doled out, claiming that “the left is now rationing lifesaving therapeutics based on race, discriminating against and denigrating ... white people to determine who lives and who dies. If you’re white you don’t get the vaccine or if you’re white you don’t get therapeutics. ... In New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical health.”
The AP, in turn, wrote that “no, white people are not being excluded from vaccines, of which there is a plentiful supply. And there is no evidence they being sent to the ‘back of the line’ for COVID-19 care as a matter of public health policy.”
“Trump distorted a New York policy that allows for race to be one consideration when dispensing oral antiviral treatments, which are in limited supply,” the AP continued. “The policy attempts to steer those treatments to people at the most risk of severe disease from the coronavirus .. It says that nonwhite race or Hispanic ethnicity ‘should be considered a risk factor’ because long-standing health and social inequities make people of color more likely to get severely ill or die from the virus. Trump extrapolated from that to assert wrongly that white people are being forced to ‘the back of the line’ for health care and being shut out both from vaccines and therapeutics.”
Yes, as the AP notes, Trump outright lied about the vaccines, conflating the Pfizer anti-viral drug Paxlovid with Moderna and Pfizer shots. Anyone, anywhere can get a vaccine today with ease. There are no race-based criteria for administering shots. Trump likely forgot this already, but there was at least one state, Vermont, that decided in April 2021 to give nonwhite residents priority status for vaccinations. All Black, Indigenous residents and other people of color who were permanent Vermont residents and 16 or older were eligible for the vaccine about two weeks before the rest of the state’s population.
Trump is a politician who exploits racial grievance and attracts support from white nationalists. In their attempt to reckon with this reality while processing what Trump said at the rally, the AP fails to adequately explain existing policy. Indeed, there is no decree in New York State that declares a white Covid patient is sent to the “back of the line” for anti-viral treatments. But if a drug has a limited supply—Trump invokes “rationing,” which isn’t far from the truth, at least currently—tough decisions must be made if patients of different races are suffering from Covid in a hospital. The New York City and State Health Departments, along with health agencies in some other areas, have determined nonwhite race or Hispanic ethnicity should be a “risk factor” when considering whether anti-virals should be used. If a white plumber of Italian ancestry is struggling to breathe in the same manner as a Dominican-American investment banker in an Albany hospital, who will receive Paxlovid first? The guidance dictates the banker. One could argue, given America’s long history of racism and inequality, this is the correct decision, a Kendian corrective to centuries of oppression. Even if the policy may be unconstitutional and ultimately wrongheaded—a lawsuit is already under way—it can be defended on its own merits. Those arguing for the policy should be prepared for how actual racists will invert it, calling Covid a disease of the nonwhites or proclaiming, against all evidence, European ancestry insulates you from the virus. But that’s a discussion for different time.
Instead, the AP should acknowledge what’s in front of them. Trump was not entirely wrong, if his phrasing was typically unsettling. A sentence like this from their fact-check—“an earlier Associated Press analysis of the pandemic’s first waves found that COVID-19 was taking a disproportionately heavy toll on Black and Hispanic people”—is mostly useless now, ignoring subsequent Covid waves, particularly Delta, that devastated largely white communities, particularly in rural areas. The single biggest risk factor for Covid death remains age, followed by various comorbidities like obesity. Environmental factors can fuel these comorbidities and that’s where a rightful discussion of systemic racism comes into play. This discussion can be had while acknowledging there are health departments in America that are taking race into account when dispensing limited supply anti-viral drugs.
If Trump runs again or Trump becomes president—or, just as likely, a Trump acolyte like Ron DeSantis takes up the challenge and defeats a Democrat in the Electoral College—there will be renewed discussions about what the media should do. If there is a change to be made, it must rest on a return to fair inquiry and objectivity as Lippmann defined it. Most Americans will ignore the “urgency” index or laugh it off if they see the little red bar on the Times home page. Overwrought opposition, as a stance and a mien, was tried without much success—if success is judged by how much Americans trust their media. Trump certainly was not deterred. The 2020s will be no easier than the 2010s. A sense of proportion should be kept in mind.