‘Emotionally disruptive’ Trump takes toll on those who cover him

October 5, 2017
CJR's conference on "The Year That Changed Journalism" gets underway in Atlanta.

New York Times White House correspondent Glenn Thrush recently gave up his Twitter habit. He deleted the app from his phone, went a week cold turkey, and realized he wasn’t missing much. Courtesy of colleagues at the Times, Thrush still sees all President Trump’s tweets.

Those same tweets ping on the phone of Thrush’s counterpart at The Guardian, Ben Jacobs, when he wakes up at 6:30 every morning. As time passes, Jacobs says they must meet an ever-higher shock threshold to keep him from rolling over and going back to sleep.

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However it manifests, it’s no accident that Twitter fatigue is a common symptom for the reporters whose daily responsibility it is to chronicle the president. “[Trump] uses Twitter as a means of political communication and as a means of emotional communication, and there’s a great deal of overlap between those two imperatives,” says Thrush.

For the exhausted, overworked journalists on Trump’s trail, the duty to document the president and the hypercharged news cycle he drives takes a personal toll. “You’re a little shorter with your kids, you don’t always say thank you when someone holds a door for you, you’re a little more abrupt with your sources,” says Thrush. “Trump is emotionally disruptive.”

The idea of disruption was front and center Wednesday as Thrush and Jacobs spoke at a special conference in Atlanta hosted by CJR to mark the publication of a special print magazine on Trump and “the year that changed journalism.” The two reporters joined other journalists and academics to parse the whiplash in communications style, public perception of the press, and basic disrespect for the facts that the new president has brought about. Sponsors for the event included the Atlanta Press Club and the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.

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Trump has contributed to a new and confounding environment for the media. Since the election, dazed journalists and media-watchers have gathered countless times to make sense of that environment, often raising more questions than they’ve been able to answer.

As the leaves turn brown on the first year of the Trump presidency, many of those questions still hang in the air. But as the discussion in Atlanta showed, those in the fray have started to sort out which Trump-era talking points are actually new, and which we have heard before.

Twitter, for example, has always been a noisy platform, and has consequently been a mixed blessing for journalists. Reliance on anonymous sources, a common bugbear for the president, has long been a reality in DC; Thrush notes that the practice peaked under the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

And Jacobs, who was body-slammed by Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte on the eve of a special election in May, refuses to attribute the attack to a climate of press intimidation stoked by Trump. “These things happen and that guy was his own unique character,” Jacobs said of Gianforte.

A consensus is emerging around a central conviction—that reporters should respond to Trump by doubling down on the hard-hitting journalism they were doing anyway. That theme came up frequently in Atlanta; in CJR Editor Kyle Pope’s opening words, and in remarks on separate panels by Wall Street Journal Washington bureau chief Paul Beckett and Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple.

“The core job of journalists—to report, report, report and publish your findings—is a pretty good model,” Wemple said. “You have to get more sources, more backup, more documentation than ever before. You live a miserable life if you screw up.”

In addition to continuing to report without fear or favor, panelists in Atlanta stressed the need for journalists to focus anew on more fundamental challenges for the press, which have been refracted through the Trump lens of late, but which predate the president and will be around long after he’s gone.

Thrush argued that the decline of local press has reduced citizens’ familiarity with journalists and thus their trust in the media as a whole, playing into Trump’s hands.

The first panel of the day, featuring Wemple, CJR’s First Amendment expert Jonathan Peters, and Emory University political scientist Andra Gillespie, dug deep into the regulation of news coming from Facebook. “If something comes on your feed from Uncle Bob, unless it’s Uncle Bob Woodward, you should probably go verify it,” Gillespie said.

After Thrush and Jacobs’ conversation, the third and final panel—featuring Beckett,
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Washington correspondent Tamar Hallerman, Atlanta Voice Executive Editor Stan Washington, and Reuters National Affairs Editor Jason Szep—saw discussion turn to the difficulties younger journalists, particularly journalists of color, face in finding jobs and developing their careers.

This final session also offered suggestions on how journalists might cover Trump on a more clear-headed basis going forward. At Reuters, for example, Szep is heading up The Trump Effect, a multimedia project focusing on the real-life effects of the president’s policies.

More broadly, Hallerman called on reporters to pay less attention to the “shiny objects” and “palace intrigue” of DC, and more attention to the middle-level policy questions, often settled in proverbially smoke-filled committee rooms, that are often ignored. “You talk to people in Atlanta, you talk to hospitals, you talk to farmers, what do they care about? They care about the money they’re going to get from Washington next year.”

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That’s not to say the media doesn’t have more conceptual ground to cover in deciding how best to tackle Trump. Whether we should use words like “racist” and “liar” to describe the president’s words and actions is still an open question. Wemple, in the first session, said “the media draws analytic conclusions about people all the time….But if someone says Obama was born in Kenya, that the Central Park five need to be put to death, that Mexicans are rapists, we call him ‘the president.’ People don’t go [as far as calling him ‘racist.’]”

In a subsequent session, however, Thrush said “people are in the conclusion-drawing business these days,” and that they don’t rely on journalists to tell them what to think. “Words like ‘lie’ are devalued if you use them every five minutes,” he said.

This type of debate is valuable as long as it doesn’t become circular. The key to that, as many of the panelists in Atlanta identified, is to understand the president’s diversionary behavior—whether or not it’s intentional—rather than chasing its tail. “Trump always said he was coming in to be a change agent,” said Gillespie, the Emory academic. Thrush later added that “Most politics is not rules, but norms. Trump doesn’t care about norms. That was his strength.”  

It’s hard to hold the president to account when his disruptive behavior can be seen as the fulfillment of a promise to disrupt. The trick for journalists is to be confident and consistent in defending their own craft and the valuable democratic norms that protect it— wherever they fit in with the chaos and noise emanating from the Oval Office.

As the second session in Atlanta came to a close, a member of the audience asked Thrush who he wants to play him on Saturday Night Live now that Bobby Moynihan has left the show. “Tina Fey,” Thrush quipped, before pausing. “The thing about Trump is everything is derivative of his celebrity, and if you start drinking from that particular fountain it changes you,” he said. “Trump has brought the narcissism virus to town. You don’t wanna catch it.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.