Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion | How the media can cover Trump better this time

Opinion | How the media can cover Trump better this time


CNN’s decision to host a live, prime-time town hall in Manchester, N.H., this week with Donald Trump and a group of Republican and independent voters has brought back the long-standing debate about how the media should cover the former president. Some media critics and people on the left have said that the town hall legitimizes a man who, among his many misdeeds, tried to overturn the 2020 election and, effectively, U.S. democracy. They argue that a live event allows a serial liar such as Trump to easily put falsehoods and misinformation into the public sphere, unlike a taped interview where his comments aren’t automatically aired.

They’re not wrong. But Trump is among the few people who have a clear, obvious route to becoming president in 2025. The media has to cover him. The key thing is to cover him smartly — and to avoid the mistakes that were made from 2015 to 2021.

CNN has defended the town hall by noting that it has long held these kinds of events with presidential candidates. “The network is going to treat him like any other presidential candidate,” CNN political director David Chalian told Vanity Fair.

Chalian’s comment is wrong and misleading. CNN should, of course, treat Trump differently from other candidates. His record of antidemocratic behavior makes him a much more dangerous potential president than other candidates. Also, does anyone honestly think that CNN’s internal preparations for its town hall with Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who has flirted with a presidential run, were nearly as extensive as for this one with Trump? I’m quite confident CNN approaches its coverage of Trump differently than for other politicians, no matter what the network claims publicly.

Here are some principles for what coverage of Trump should look like for the rest of the 2024 presidential campaign:

1. Focus on “the stakes” of the 2024 election, not “the odds.”

Back in 2015, lots of journalists, myself included, said Trump had no chance to win the Republican primary. Then, the media concluded he could not win the 2016 general election. After Trump-endorsed candidates did badly in last year’s midterms, there was a spate of stories suggesting that the Republican Party was ready to move on from Trump. Wrong again. Trump has a huge lead in most polls of the Republican primary field.

Journalists generally shouldn’t make predictions, but they really should stop trying to predict Trump’s demise. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says that coverage of the 2024 campaign should focus not on who will win the GOP primary or general election, but instead on how consequential the election results will be, because the parties have such vast differences on most issues. He’s right.

Polls are useful to give us a sense of where the race stands and which candidates deserve the most coverage and scrutiny. But the past four months have already featured plenty of pieces trying to analyze whether Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is more likely to win the Republican nomination and relatively few stories on how similar their policy agendas as president would be.

2. Explain Trump’s probable agenda as president in detail.

In 2016, the media not only played down Trump’s chances of winning but also suggested that Trump would not pursue the outlandish and far-right ideas that he was running on if he won. This attitude was summed up by an Atlantic article titled “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally.” This perspective was entirely wrongheaded. Trump implemented modified versions of the Muslim ban, a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and many of his other controversial ideas.

Trump is again pushing both highly unorthodox (creating 10 new cities from scratch on federally owned land) and very right-wing ideas (choosing principals for schools through parental elections). Journalists should not dismiss these ideas as never-going-to-happen but should instead explain how they would work in practice.

And there is another set of ideas that Trump is probably going to put into effect if he is elected, but that he might not talk about much on the campaign trail. In 2015 and 2016, the think tanks, nonprofits and other conservative organizations that drive the Republican Party’s agenda were still writing policy for a George W. Bush-style president. Now, conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation are fully Trumpified. They have radical plans, such as turning tens of thousands of traditionally nonpartisan federal government jobs into political appointments, which would allow a sitting president to stack the executive branch with loyalists.

These plans are likely to be put into place by the next Republican president, whether that is Trump, DeSantis or former vice president Mike Pence. So news outlets really need to cover them now.

3. Don’t make getting access to Republican politicians or projecting “neutrality” and “objectivity” a main goal of coverage.

There are real reasons to be skeptical of CNN in particular hosting this town hall. The network’s new leaders have repeatedly said that they felt CNN was too anti-Trump when he was president. CNN has forced out some of the reporters and anchors (John Harwood, Don Lemon, Brian Stelter) who were most critical of Trump. The network now brags that it has more Republican officials and operatives on air as guests than before.

With those moves in mind, the Trump town hall looks like a successful courtship. CNN tried to appease Republicans and then landed a buzzy event with the most important figure in the party. The town hall will probably result in at least one night of high viewership for the ratings-challenged network.

I don’t think CNN planned this quite so explicitly. It’s more likely that CNN’s leaders both ideologically prefer the network to be to the right of where it was during the Trump years and also see a business and journalistic opportunity in being squarely between Fox News and MSNBC. This repositioning made a town hall with Trump a natural fit for CNN and also made him more likely to say yes.

The problem is that being more favorable to Republicans, particularly Trump, and doing strong journalism might be conflicting goals. In my view, the coverage by Lemon and other Trump critics from 2015 to 2021 that the network is now distancing itself from was laudable. Trump was behaving in a radical, undemocratic way. CNN’s personalities said that forthrightly, as opposed to shying away from honest language to avoid offending Republican voters and politicians.

I worry CNN is repeating one of the big media mistakes of 2015-2021 — journalists and news outlets often played down Trump’s radicalism to appear neutral and objective, to get access to Trump and his top aides or to appeal to Republican officials and consumers. Trump was covered more negatively than any other recent president because he was constantly lying and breaking with democratic norms. But at times, the day-to-day coverage of him was full of euphemisms and false equivalences from reporters and news outlets who seemed desperate not to be cast as too liberal.

That approach should not be repeated.

With Trump and DeSantis as candidates, journalists will face constant decisions about whether to describe their comments and policy ideas in the clearest, most direct ways possible — or instead find ways to minimize tension with Republican candidates and viewers by being less honest. Journalists should always choose the first path.





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