It’s time to rethink how we cover Trump

January 22, 2018
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Please pick us, please pick us, please pick us. 

It says so much about our current media moment that the president would announce plans to shame news organizations with his first-annual “Fake News Awards” and every reporter would be praying to God they made the list.

It’s been just over a year since Donald Trump’s inauguration, almost certainly one of the most momentous chapters in the history of the American presidency and the press. For all the reasons all of us know, the past year has been thrilling and exhausting and demoralizing, sometimes in a single day. But these bogus awards, and the willingness of news organizations to give Trump oxygen for them, have also clarified why the past year has also been a disappointment, for those of us who expected a new attitude, a new approach, by the US press. 

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This time last year, on the eve of Trump’s inauguration, I penned an “Open Letter” to the new president on behalf of the US press corps. Trump, even before he came into office, was amping up his attacks on the press, and I thought it might be helpful (if perhaps a little tongue in cheek) to lay out some ground rules for the relationship between the president and the reporters who cover him. “It is, after all, our airtime and column inches that you are seeking to influence,” I wrote. “We, not you, decide how best to serve our readers, listeners, and viewers. So think of what follows as a backgrounder on what to expect from us.”

The idea then was that it was time to take the story back; to not let Trump, and his acolytes, control the conversation. That was going to be our job. We were going to decide what mattered, how our audience spent their time. In the months since, Trump has done his thing, taunting and lying and promising lawsuits and legislation and more threats. We, unfortunately, have failed to hold up our end of the bargain.

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I remain astonished by the ability of this former reality TV star to be our assignment editor. He has a preternatural ability to intuit the bumps and swerves of the news cycle, enabling him to refocus attention on himself just as it is in danger of moving on. The world, finally, seems to be interested in something outside the West Wing? Zip out a late-night tweet ridiculing a senator. Congressional reporters are digging into the effects of his legislative ideas? Say something outrageous about the leader of a nuclear-armed foe. A TV anchor offers a smart analysis of the president’s team? Pretend you don’t watch and call him the dumbest man on TV.

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It’s entirely within Donald Trump’s rights to do what he does, the dignity of America’s highest office be damned. But it is, or should be, within our rights to ignore him, or to bring him back to what we think matters. 

Much too often, we have not. We continue to spend our days, and our audience’s time, reacting to the president’s bumbling with a level of disbelief and outrage that has boiled over into a stinking froth. The Fake News Awards were a case in point: We participated with Trump in building up the thing—“Isn’t it outrageous that a sitting president would take time out of his day to dream this up?”—then when it was launched and the accompanying web site crashed, we made fun of the botched rollout (it’s a metaphor!), then bemoaned Trump’s continued attacks on the press.

Every single one of Trump’s fake newsies was a rehash of complaints he’s made before, a repackaging of his schtick in the same way that his Twitter tirades seem at this point a broken-needle repeat of the same material, repeating itself again and again. What’s amazing is that we continue to cover all of it, again and again. Often, the strategy seems to be to simply give Trump the forum in hopes, in hopes that he’ll pay us back by saying something outrageous enough to win us clicks or viewers. If the mission a year ago was to keep Trump from leading us around by the nose, I’m afraid we have failed.

If the mission a year ago was to keep Trump from leading us around by the nose, I’m afraid we have failed.

It didn’t start out this way. The first half of last year, from January through the summer, was an astonishing show of enterprise and scoops, led by The New York Times and The Washington Post, but echoed by great reporting by USA Today, The Daily Beast, and others. In a print issue of CJR last fall, we called a single period in mid-May “The Best 10 Days in Journalism,” and it was. Throughout that period, reporters were pressing the story forward, breaking news that made the president uncomfortable, serving their audience in undeniably important ways. 

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But then something happened, and the political press corps lost its steam. Narrative has become a maligned word of late, but we find ourselves today in a news environment where the narratives are established, and the days’ Trump coverage seems largely in service of reinforcing (for the left) or debunking (the right) that narrative. We say this, the president says that, we’re at an impasse. Donald Trump called developing nations a shithole, unless he didn’t, but he probably did. What do we learn? Probably that he’s a racist who lies, both of which we already knew. But that doesn’t stop us from repeating the exercise day after day; maybe this will be the thing that finally does him in.

I suspect that one factor behind the drop-off in quality is burnout, both among readers and the reporters tasked with doing the dance. The burnout stems both from the sheer number of hours worked, but also from the fact that a lot of the early investigative work seems to have had so little impact. Journalists aren’t supposed to pay attention to the effect of their stories—do the piece and let the chips fall—but we’re all human and a certain demoralization has sunk in. Despite everything we’ve learned about Trump over the past year, the size of his core group of support hasn’t budged; if anything, they’ve doubled down on their support of the president, almost because of the journalistic attacks.

Since the summer, the Trump reporting also has been overshadowed by amazing (and frankly, more impactful and enterprising) reporting on sexual harassment across the country. You can argue that those stories are Trump-related, and they are, but they are being carried out by different teams of reporters than the Trump coverage.

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For all of its many flaws, Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, broke out in part because it was a departure from pattern of much of the more recent Trump coverage. He didn’t seem to give a flip what the president was trying to say or how we was trying to spin it. He didn’t allow himself to get drawn into a fight with Kellyanne Conway over “alternative facts.” He didn’t let Trump draw attention away with bogus refutations of his claims; all of that was to reporters on the daily Trump beat. It reminded me of what a Trump voter in Pennsylvania told me when I asked her whether she was bothered by the president’s tendency to lie. “He gets at a bigger truth,” she said. And so, too, did Michael Wolff.

For people in the fact business, who pride themselves on getting as close to the truth as a human can get, the success of Wolff’s book, with its myriad errors and dubious sourcing, was professionally and personally offensive.

But the sad fact, one year into this presidency, is that the current approach to covering this White House is no longer working. We are reading the same memes again and again, and the president, a savant at intuiting public sentiment, is doing everything he can to keep the treadmill moving. 

I fear that all of our words, and all of our rightful outrage, are not getting at that bigger truth, the deep, personal, soulful anxiety of Donald Trump or life in Donald Trump’s America. That requires a new journalistic enterprise, more creativity in terms of what form that journalism would take, a rethinking of how we tell our stories. 

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That is the challenge for the coverage of Trump in 2018: How do we retake the agenda from this man who so hungers for attention, and how do we tell stories in a way that reflects the scale and sweep of the moment we’re in?  

I spent an afternoon this week at a Manhattan hotel with a couple of dozen people, mainly artists, who gather regularly for an informal salon. They, too, are struggling with how to respond to Trump; most have not yet figured it out. But these outsiders looking in on journalism had become convinced that what they were reading and watching was no longer helping them make sense of where the country was headed, or how they should think about it. To them, it all seemed like so much white noise, much of which they increasingly were tuning out. 

We, as a profession, are capable of figuring this out. The answer clearly is not in spending our time responding to Trump, or emoting en masse in response to whatever he has spout off. Nor is the answer in the more traditional, “he said, she said” approach to political journalism. I think the answer likely lies in the seams between more conventional approaches to reporting: I want to see more first-person pieces by reporters on the trail, some oral histories, some theoretical what-ifs. Let’s not leave the most truthful storytelling to fiction writers or dodgy book writers. This is an extraordinary moment, and it requires a new, proactive urgency to tell the story of this presidency as we see it, rather than fall into the swirl of familiar tropes and outrages. 

But we’re never going to do it if we continue to follow the lead of our dear leader, who needs us nearly as desperately as we apparently need him.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.