Donald Trump leveled Twitter yesterday with a 100-megaton stink bomb, asserting without a scrap of evidence that if millions of illegal ballots were deducted from the totals, he would have won the popular vote.
As if sprung from a short leash, the networks, the wires and the dailies leaped to refute his madcap claim, thrusting the story to heated above-the-fold coverage. “Baseless,” shouted the New York Times. “Conspiracy theory,” objected the Washington Post. “Without … corroboration,” complained the Wall Street Journal. And as the press protested his transparently bogus claims of voter fraud, Trump sniggered from his villainous golden lair in Trump Tower and commenced the countdown to his next news-dominating tweet.
As I theorized a week ago, Trump tends to toss off these provocations to divert attention and discussion from a newly published damaging story the way a squid fills the sea with ink to escape his predators. In yesterday’s example, the story was the exhaustive New York Times piece about his many business projects around the world that pose potential conflicts of interest for his presidency. But you needn’t subscribe to the idea that his affronts are purpose-driven—New York Times political reporter Maggie Haberman, for one, doesn’t—to advocate the jettisoning of the usual rules for covering a president during the Trump years. There has never been a president like Trump before, and the usual press reflexes won’t produce copy that allows readers to see through his lies and deceptions. The Trump challenge demands that the house of journalism gives itself a makeover. Here’s how.
1. Curb Your Twitter Enthusiasm
While it may be satisfying to rebut Trump’s crazy tweets with contesting tweets, journalists who do so might want to consider that they’re talking to themselves. As one who talks to himself incessantly, I understand the appeal of self-dialogue. But as my friend Jim Brady of Billy Penn tells me, the journalistic pack agrees on Trump’s preposterousness, and their unanimity has no effect on Trump supporters who dig Trump’s tweets whether they’re true or not. So, tweet all the refutations you want, my fellow journos, but you’re just spilling your seed on the ground unless you go to the heart of his trolling method.
2. Starve the Troll
Yes, Trump trolls us, especially the press. We shouldn’t take his bait, but that’s not the same as ignoring him. The context in which the press dresses his tweets is paramount: If Trump makes an unsupported claim as he did on Twitter yesterday, it is news; but the news is not the claim but the fact that he’s advancing a wildly unfounded claim. That point belongs in the headline, the first sentence of the first paragraph, and elsewhere in the piece. Always pair the latest Trump deception with the news story he’s deflecting attention away from. Feel free to qualify Trump’s thrust by writing something like “in an apparent attempt to bury negative news about his recent proposal” when he tweets his cockamamie best.
3. Don’t Fact-Check Everything He Says (Starve the Troll, Part II)
Not every Trump eruption deserves a full-dress fact-checking. As much as I admire the fact-checkers and read them obsessively, some of Trump’s crazier volleys can be sent right back into his side of the court without 27 paragraphs of rebuttal. For example, Trump’s classic campaign postulation, “Obama founded ISIS,” could have been returned to him with the questions where, how and when. Unless he has the goods, his declarations need not be taken seriously. Yesterday’s claim about fraudulent election results is another good example. Does Trump have any proof of voter fraud? If so he needs to present it, the coverage should say. It’s common enough that Trump claims contain their undoing, as Joe Hagan pointed out yesterday about his voter fraud tweet. “He generates a reason for a recount,” Hagan wrote, “while arguing against a recount.” Don’t blow Trump off in cases like this; blow him down.
4. Crack the Code Behind His Psyops
Where feasible, news organizations might want to establish a media-manipulation sub-beat to defang Trump’s misinformation. Every politician manipulates the press, engaging in psyops against them, but none as aggressively as our president-elect. Whether Trump schemes out his tweets in advance for effect or streams them from his subconscious, there is a purpose behind them, just as there is a purpose behind a speech or a campaign commercial or the needling of his surrogates and aides. Just as foreign correspondents study foreign languages, our media-manipulation reporter would be schooled in the techniques of propaganda and other monkey-shines. How Trump says things will become as important as what he says. Media manipulation pieces won’t necessarily stop the Trump offenses. At some point, the press will resign itself to the realization that Trump’s hardcore supporters will back him even if he makes good on that threat to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.” But by decoding his misdirections we can make it harder for his administration to impose its bull on the majority that didn’t vote for him. In other words, many times the story isn’t what Trump says but the meta concept behind why and how he’s saying it.
5. Report Aggressively, But Not Necessarily From the White House
If the recent past is any preview, the Trump White House won’t likely cooperate with the reporters. It has been four months since his last press conference, after all. John Dickerson of Slate and CBS News, whose thinking informs mine on this topic of Trump coverage, suggests that the key to covering a Trump administration will lie in the cabinet departments, the states, the Pentagon and the courts—venues with entrenched bureaucracies. We can expect gushers of leaks, especially from the agencies, as Trump flexes his authority and they defy him. Obviously, Trump’s lies must be policed, but news consumers will profit more if the press digs harder into what the fake news-generating president is actually trying to do rather than what he’s saying. Let a billion FOIAs bloom!
6. Stop Blaming Yourself for Trump
While introspection has its place, reporters can stop blaming themselves, fake news, echo chambers, diminished newsrooms and the decline of trust in journalism for the election of Trump. Collectively assessed, the press did yeoman’s work in covering the campaign and needn’t torture themselves about the outcome. Remember, Trump won the election thanks to razor-thin margins in the swing states, as the Washington Post reported, and not due to some terrain-shifting cataclysm. Like George W. Bush in 2000, he lost the popular vote. He’s a minority president. To propose a simple counterfactual, if Hillary Clinton had caught a few breaks—it might have been a good idea to campaign in Wisconsin—she’d be the president-elect, not Trump. Nobody would be committing to print hair-shirted columns “explaining” why she won. “We would have just kept on, patting ourselves on the back the whole way for our excellent and important work,” Jim Brady says.
7. Remember: There Is No Magic Bullet for Covering Trump
This isn’t a new rule, but an old, enduring one. Trump’s design from the beginning has been to delegitimize the press. There is no magic amulet that can protect journalists from his insults and his misinformation. Reporters have never been popular, and reporters will have to face our fate that we’re going to be less popular over the next four years. No whining, you guys! In covering his presidency, the best reporters and editors will navigate around his vexations to get the news and publish. Think three steps ahead of Trump! Improvise! We need to play our best game, not his.
Don’t ignore my tweets, just read them in context. Send email and abuse to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts have an entire closet of hair shirts and my RSS feed once shot a man on Fifth Avenue just to watch him die.
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