Master Trump’s game: Don’t get pissed. Do journalism.

August 23, 2017
Image by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr

Journalists took to Twitter, TV, radio, and print last night to blast back at the president of the United States after he insulted them at his Phoenix rally. They wanted their readers to know that they were patriots—that they love their country, and that they tell the truth.

But President Trump’s war with the media is a game. When the media responds with its straight-to-camera soliloquies or preening opinions declaring journalists the true defenders of the First Amendment, his base simply rejoices in our discomfort.

Last night, Greg Gutfeld—a popular right-wing commentator for Fox News—tweeted this:

Similar opinions abounded among Trump’s base. The game is not about Trump’s policy stances or campaign promises—it’s about baiting reporters and riling them up. It’s about rejoicing when the reality-TV nature of Trump’s rallies prevails over sound analysis of policies. In this game, their home run is getting a journalist to react—and they score just about every time.

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The losers in this game are not journalists, but their readers, listeners, and viewers, who are subjected to endless replays of Trump’s zingers instead of actual assessments of his policies.

In his speech, Trump proposed no specific curtailments to journalistic freedom. He didn’t threaten to do away with the daily briefing, change public records procedures, or advocate “opening up” libel laws. He lobbed the normal insults, claimed fake news, and stoked existing resentment.

And even though the insults were par-for-the-course name calling, they consumed large parts of the analysis I read or listened to today.

In the same speech, Trump strategically restated his response to Charlottesville, leaving out his equivocation about “both sides” being responsible for the violence, and fanned the flames of racial tension by hinting he’d pardon Joe Arpaio. He called for a government shutdown if the border wall wasn’t funded—an expenditure he repeatedly promised would be borne by Mexico. And he said America would “probably” withdraw from NAFTA “at some point,” sowing uncertainty in a business climate he claims to deeply understand. All of these policy suggestions would have serious and likely negative impacts on vast swaths of the country, but we media types give them short shrift so we can publicly lick our wounds.

After I vented on Twitter last night, fellow reporters said it wasn’t the insults they feared, but the potential violence against journalists that might follow or the long-term impact on our ability to do our jobs. That is understandable, and it is deeply sad that those concerns are valid. But we will not prevent violence or a bad legal climate by screaming back at the wind. We will regain credibility and respect in the long term by learning from this and doing even better work.

Trump’s vilification of journalists is not a short-term annoyance that can be swatted away with a personal appeal. Save your straight-to-camera monologues, and spend that time accomplishing journalism that history will bear out.

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Jessica Huseman is a reporter at ProPublica. She covers national politics with a focus on civil rights. Follow her at @JessicaHuseman