Political Press

What will the press do without Trump?

November 12, 2020
Richard M. Nixon speaks to the press in Los Angeles, Nov. 7, 1962, after he conceded defeat in the California gubernatorial election. He accused the media of treating him unfairly and told them: "This is my last press conference." (AP Photo)

In November 1962, the not-yet-infamous Richard Nixon famously gave what he claimed would be his last press conference, right after losing a gubernatorial race in California (and two years after losing a presidential bid to John Kennedy). This is what he told reporters

“As I leave you, I want you to know—just think how much you’re going to be missing. You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

As we know, that wasn’t his last press conference, and reporters did have Nixon to kick around after 1962: a narrow presidential win in 1968, a massive victory in 1972, and then in 1974, a resignation in disgrace. 

We don’t know yet what Trump will tell the press when (or if) he finally admits defeat. We can predict that it will include some of Nixon’s self-pity, along with vitriol about how unfairly he has been treated and lies about how the election was stolen.

The more interesting questions, for journalists, are these: 

What will the press do without Trump? How will we function without a towering political figure to kick and be kicked around by? And, what will the press do about Trump? Once he’s out of office, how much longer will we allow him to set the news agenda? 

Sign up for CJR's daily email

For the past five years, journalists have tussled with a president who antagonizes the press as much as he courts it. Trump has demeaned and castigated journalists for actual errors, such as those that plagued the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election, as well as slights that are part of the normal political process. While much of the sparring has been limited to Twitter, some of Trump’s press-hatred has fed into terrifying conspiracy theories. Remember Cesar Sayoc Jr., the Florida man who sent homemade pipe bombs to those he saw as Trump’s enemies, including CNN? And individual reporters, particularly women and those of color, have borne the brunt of vicious threats, both online and offline.

President-elect Joe Biden is likely to be a more accommodating figure, with less-shouty briefings and a far shorter litany of deceptive statements or outright lies. Politifact recently rated 38 percent of Biden’s statements as ranging between “mostly false” and “pants on fire,” while Trump clocks in at 72 percent on those metrics. 

But should it be considered a victory that Biden isn’t nearly as dishonest? The danger is that our standards for scandal have changed so much, and Trump’s mendacity has become so deeply ingrained, that journalists could see a Biden administration’s garden-variety ineptitude or minor-league misconduct as not really worth their attention, in the same way that a single homicide won’t get much publicity if it occurs shortly after a mass shooting. In any newsroom, a nemesis like Trump clarifies the mind and the mission. Biden is unlikely to become so polarizing or riveting a figure. 

For now, the press is vowing to hold the incoming administration to account. As Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, recently wrote, “The media’s adversarial approach that you’ve seen during the Trump years … serves us well no matter who holds high office. If Biden says the blue sky is red, the media must call it out.” That sounds very noble; let’s see if it holds true. 

And what of Trump, an ex-president who’s unlikely to fade into the bushes, Homer Simpson-style? Nixon doesn’t provide a useful template. As John Aloysius Farrell, author of a superb biography, told me, Nixon went to great lengths to rehabilitate his image after his California defeat. He traveled the world, “stopping in at embassies and ministries to talk to US and foreign diplomats. Then he presented what he learned in the form of speeches, after-dinner talks and essays… to build a reputation in the eyes of the press as an expert in international affairs.” It’s safe to predict that Trump won’t follow that path — and as Farrell noted, he won’t need to, given that today’s media landscape is far less dependent on a few major gatekeepers. 

Once Biden takes over, we can expect to see a flood of damning evidence about how the Trump administration managed its affairs — the way its Justice Department handled investigations into the president’s opponents; the way its Environmental Protection Agency diminished regulatory oversight; and most crucially, the way its health-care officials botched the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists are likely to spend as much time doing forensic analysis of the past president’s conduct as they are of the new president’s programs and policies. But it won’t just be retrospective journalism, given that Trump can craft his own media empire. As Lauren Williams, editor in chief of Vox, said this week: “It would be a mistake to say, ‘Trump is out of office, we just don’t have to pay attention to him anymore.’” While journalists shouldn’t “hang on everything he says,” Williams added, we can’t pretend that “he doesn’t still wield power and influence.”

This may wind up as the greatest risk of all for the press. Trump, who craves the spotlight the way a kitten craves the sunny corner of a rug, will demand to be seen and heard. It will take every ounce of self-control that journalists can muster to resist his insistence on getting attention and air time. We saw how badly the cable networks, in particular, handled this in the 2016 campaign, with their incessant and uncritical broadcasting of Trump rallies and remarks, to the point of live-shooting his campaign plane as it came in for final approach. (Assessing the coverage years later, CNN President Jeff Zucker was just restating the obvious when he said that his network’s obliviousness toward Trump was “probably a mistake.”) 

If journalists allow ex-President Trump to set their agenda the way they’ve done with candidate and President Trump, they’ll enable the Biden administration to skate by without the scrutiny that it deserves and that the public expects. 

At a time when trust in journalism already is shaky, that’s a legacy the press can’t afford.

THE MEDIA TODAY: What does a Joe Biden presidency mean for tech?

Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).