Our Damned Trump Fixation

For the past five years, members of the media have blamed Donald Trump for hijacking the narrative of American politics. His outsize threat to democracy drove journalists’ obsession; his personal dysfunction propelled an outrage machine. According to data from mediaQuant, a media tracking firm, Trump received the equivalent of $5.6 billion in “free media” during the 2016 presidential campaign—more than Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz combined. The Internet Archive logged every mention of every candidate for president on cable TV news in the seven months leading up to that election; Trump was mentioned 1,172,235 times, Clinton 623,325. The numbers were even starker heading into the 2020 race. And throughout his tenure in the Oval Office, Trump received breathless, around-the-clock coverage.

Last year, after the votes were counted (with scarcely a hiccup), political reporters looked ahead to the end of the Trump administration and a promised return of decency to the White House. The beginning of 2021 marked a chance for a reset and even, perhaps, redemption. Trump, the nihilist reality-TV star who had flown from Queens to Palm Beach, was being replaced by Joe Biden, a plainspoken guy who rides the train from DC to Delaware.

But the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, a deadly event stoked by Trump during his final days in office, warranted urgent, focused reporting. Journalists traced the lead-up to the attack and its aftershocks, including the congressional response. There were investigations into the communication between government officials and police, of the domestic terrorists at the scene and their networks across the country. As the weeks went by, when political reporters might have been covering Trump’s election loss—and impeachment—and then his slinking off to Mar-a-Lago forever, he instead remained front and center.

Damned if political journalism didn’t blow the opportunity to refocus. After Biden took office, coverage of January 6 soon devolved into an excuse for the political reporting class to sustain Trump-scorn content, even as they purported to be covering his successor. According to an April report from the Pew Research Center, which examined news coverage of Biden’s first sixty days in office, nearly half of the print, digital, and broadcast stories on Biden included a mention of Trump. That trend turned out to be slightly more pronounced among left-wing outlets than their conservative counterparts.

If you’re a regular viewer of the prime-time shows on cable, those findings may seem soft. Anchors droned on about Trump’s unwillingness to quash the insurrection and his conversations with the MyPillow guy; Jared and Ivanka distancing themselves from her father’s sins; the comings and goings in Palm Beach. This rote material may have appealed to core viewers but had little to do with producing valuable journalism.

Cynics, especially on the right, have tried to tie ongoing Trump coverage to the collapse of ratings and subscriptions that followed his exit. Since Trump’s ignominious departure, the big cable networks have lost between 30 and 50 percent of their prime-time viewership; Web audiences for politics have plummeted. But I’ve never bought into the media-money conspiracies, in which producers and executives are determined to put Trump on the air to keep the ad dollars rolling in. Reporters don’t work that way; if anything, they tend to turn passive-aggressively from whatever the business side wants.

Besides, if it were that simple—corporate political journalism is broken because the business model skews toward the sensational—fixing it would be relatively easy. Uncouple the money from the coverage. Nonprofit political journalism would unfold into a golden age. The fact that we have not seen that—the good intentions and excellent reporting of newsrooms such as The 19th and ProPublica notwithstanding—tells us that the problems are more fundamental, ingrained into how individual political reporters see the story and how their managers decide which scoops to celebrate. And it’s rooted in who gets promoted and who cashes the contributor checks from MSNBC and CNN. In reality, key failings of the political press are not simply the fault of Trump. The blame also lies with us.

Rote Trump coverage may appeal to core cable TV viewers, but it has little to do with producing valuable journalism.

 

If the insurrection foiled our initial shot at a new, Trump-free approach to covering politics, the instincts of the press doomed it. As the Biden administration got rolling, the pace of White House coverage eased, as did reporters’ fixation on the presidency, yet Trump remained a character in major stories.

covid proved a prime example. During Biden’s first months in office, vaccines became widely available across the United States, but not everyone showed up to get one. A primary culprit, we were told, was Trump, whose hesitancy to take the pandemic seriously while he was in office continued to dominate well after he was gone. As did his crackpot theories about how the virus was spread, including the notion that migrants coming across the southern US border were somehow to blame for the summer covid surge. Yes, there were legitimate arguments to be made—about Trump’s influence on right-wing media and his role in amplifying disinformation—but the Trump family was out of Washington, poolside, and had been vaccinated. (“Everyone should go get your shot,” Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February.) Our national crises, hardly limited to inadequate healthcare and income inequality and medical-industry skepticism among people of color, were reported—for instance, in an MSNBC piece about attempts to tie low vaccination rates to mistrust of Biden—as the failures of Trumpism.

The sense of outrage hasn’t subsided in coverage of other subjects: the collapse of Afghanistan, the climate emergency, the faltering economy. Each of those stories represents a media opportunity to explore what it looks like when a global empire stumbles into retreat. Yet political coverage has continued holding on to Trump, claiming that he hasn’t fully loosened his grip on us. “I’m for a post-maga America, with the Trump era residing permanently within a history book and not in a newspaper, but we don’t yet live in that America,” CNN’s S.E. Cupp wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Believe me, no one wants to be past Trumpism more than I do. It has been one of the ugliest eras of modern American history, the lasting effects of which are nowhere near complete. And it’s because the story is unfinished that we must continue covering it.” There lies the central tension of political journalism today—in which Biden, the good, honorable son, operates in the shadow of Trump, the family fuck-up.

Conservatives and many centrists—nearly half the country—view that premise as absurd. Since 2015, Republicans’ trust in media has dropped sharply; according to Gallup, by 2020 it had fallen from 32 to 10 percent. Thanks at least in part to Trump’s bullying of the press, anti-media sentiment has now become central to the GOP identity. People on the left are displeased, too, with a news ecosystem seemingly more interested in propping up the powers that be than in chronicling the fights for change in streets across the country. Many Black and Latino Americans are wary of a mainstream media that doesn’t look like them and doesn’t seem to care about their lives. That leaves a narrower, more monolithic audience for major outlets—white, older, based in coastal liberal enclaves—which makes news organizations increasingly dependent on a single demographic.

Many people, especially those on social media, say they want to move on from Trump. Yet news outlets carry forth regardless. By the late summer, political reporters were speculating about Trump’s prospects in 2024. The next race for the White House was underway.

Political journalism has been listening only to the loudest voices for too long.

 

At the Columbia Journalism Review, we have sought since Trump’s early candidacy to pull our industry away from its worst tendencies. That effort continues with this issue, which takes stock of how the political press is meeting this crucial moment of transition.

We begin by looking back over the past five years through the eyes of political journalists who started their careers during the Trump era, in both local and national newsrooms. Their experiences reflect the intensity of political news of late, the shortcomings of so-called objective reporting, and the care that young people in our profession place on getting a story right.

Their peers at Teen Vogue have spent the past several years developing a strong political consciousness, transforming the magazine from a straightforward celebrity-filled fashion glossy to a voice of the far left, with pieces on Karl Marx and rent abolition that run alongside coverage of Gigi Hadid. As Clio Chang writes, Teen Vogue’s contradictions have jumped off the page recently, in conflicts public (see: Alexi McCammond’s ill-fated appointment as editor) and private (as the staff confront their corporate bosses at Condé Nast).

Adam Piore reports on tensions at the Wall Street Journal, which has always had a conservative opinion section, but has lately shifted to the right in its news pages, too. Top editors scrutinize story topics and language to ensure that the paper’s core audience—old white men—won’t be turned off; reporters struggle to rationalize the Journal’s defense of Trumpism.

Elsewhere in the issue, Mehdi Hasan, a host at NBCUniversal, has no trouble telling it like it is; Jon Allsop—who chronicles the journalism world every morning in the CJR newsletter The Media Today—describes a fierce debater in the classically British mold who has brought his combative style to an American audience. Hasan asks powerful guests how they sleep at night, then waits for an answer. Whether his appeal will last in the relative calm of the Biden era is another question, but it’s refreshing to see him make well-informed moral arguments on TV.

Averi Harper, deputy political director at ABC, tells Alexandria Neason that the churn of politics has never stopped. “There is not a part of my life that I can say politics does not touch,” Harper says. “And as a woman, and a Black woman at that, that impacts me differently than it would some of my white colleagues or my male colleagues. And I think it is important that we acknowledge that.”

Stephania Taladrid describes the frustrations of following Latin America news that revolves mainly around Washington politics. Osita Nwanevu gets honest about preaching to the choir when writing political screeds online. Hunter Walker observes the inertia of the White House press corps. Sam Sanders implores journalists to connect hard news with cultural analysis. Matt Bors looks to the future of political cartooning. And E. Tammy Kim turns to Real Change, an advocacy newspaper in Seattle that reports on inequity by drawing attention to unhoused people living in the shadow of Amazon.

Running through all these pieces is a sense that journalism is grappling with a shift in how news consumers engage with politics. Back in 2015, on the day after Trump announced his plans to run for president, Don Lemon—who would later become one of his most strident critics—highlighted how entertaining Trump was. “What’s not to like?” he said. “People want to see Donald Trump. You want to watch him.” Contrasting Trump with Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton—both of whom, Lemon observed, committed the cardinal sin of being boring—he declared: “At least there’s someone interesting in the race.” That ethos would come to define the next five years of our democracy, and our political press.

But now that Trump is out of office, as Julia Ioffe wrote in her terrific newsletter, Tomorrow Will Be Worse, “many feel a yawning sense of emptiness and disappointment at what the ebbing Trump tide left behind.” Quoting someone she identified as a “prominent White House reporter” on the difficulty in weaning off Trump, Ioffe found that, after covering his White House: “Now everyone is exposed and everyone is dogshit.” For too long, political journalism has listened mainly to the loudest talkers. It’s time, finally, to hear from other voices.

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

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