Memo to fellow journalists: Please don’t cover Trump 2.0 like in 2016
In 2016, Trump's outrageous behaviour – tweets, incendiary statements and norm-breaking promises – were covered with gawping attention. In 2023, it's his criminal indictments
Eight years after Donald Trump arrived on the US national political scene with the terrible force of a car crash playing on repeat, we seem to be back at first base.
Every Trump indictment and arraignment is covered in excruciating detail, the focus always on the nonsense he and his supporters spout, no matter the ill- logic of what is actually said or the implications of giving so much unearned media to an individual accused of serious crimes.
@Semafor recently noted with respect to the third arraignment this year, “As Donald Trump waited to be arraigned, journalists in the courthouse covered his every move — literally.”
The outlet cited reporters’ live accounts from the courthouse in Washington, D.C.: “Donald Trump prepared to be arraigned on federal charges Thursday with his hands clasped, while occasionally gesturing, picking up papers, or looking around.”
It added: “At one point, The New York Times’ Charlie Savage observed that Trump ‘clasped, unclasped and re-clasped his hands’.”
It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious. Bulwark editor Jonathan V. Last put it in context. In a piece headlined “A Message for the People Who Run Cable News: You’re Doing It Again. Stop It”, Mr Last pleaded with his (and my) tribe: “Trump’s criminal trials should not be covered as if Donald Trump is the star. The star of the story is the rule of law”.
What does that mean? Simply that instead of taking the latest indictment and arraignment and the apparently stubborn solidity of Mr Trump’s support within his Republican fan base as weird and wonderful segues into Trumplandia – its inverted relationship with truth, ethics, morality and loyalty – media outlets could cover the story as is. What does it mean to have a former president accused and indicted for alleged crimes against the American people, norms and constitution? What are the pros and cons of the case?
Thus far, all lay media consumers – readers, listeners and viewers – generally get is soundbites almost exclusively of Mr Trump or his supporters happily shooting the breeze and explaining the joyous martyrdom of “persecution and prosecution” as a giant propeller that pushes the accused man ever closer to the White House.
We have to wait and see. What’s clear, however, is that in 2016, Mr Trump’s outrageous behaviour – tweets, incendiary statements and norm-breaking promises – were covered with gawping attention and little real scrutiny beyond the occasional gasp. In 2023, it is his criminal indictments and extraordinary defiance and promised full-on dictator plans for a second (and possibly life) presidency that generate hysterical, awed coverage, with little or no parsing of the facts.
Mr Last writes that the wall-to-wall coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign “was a year-long version of the White Bronco chase with Trump as O.J.”
It meant that “instead of being interviewed, Trump was allowed to call into shows over the phone and ramble, in the hopes that he would say something scandalous.
“Every Trump rally and speech was covered in full. Hell, the coverage would start hours before the rallies, with shots of an empty podium as talking heads vamped while waiting for the train wreck to start.
“The net effect of this was to help Trump win the Republican nomination for president and then to win the presidency.”
Despite all the media mea culpas after Mr Trump’s 2016 election win, heck, everyone is doing the same thing again.
The end result, as Mr Last notes, is that “if you don’t present the Trump trials as stories about the rule of law, then they become stories about Trump. And this rewards him in the attention economy”.
We have been warned.