The Media Today

The best journalism of 2020: Covering Trump

December 14, 2020

With our regular newsletter author on a much-needed holiday break, today we begin a week-long series highlighting some of our favorite stories of the year. We’ll remind you of exemplary reporting on Covid-19 and racial justice, and reprise some of our own favorite work from CJR. But first up, some exemplary journalism about the Trump era.

It’s dizzying to think back on the newscycle of the last four years. The following list, which dates to the 2016 election, is a collection of excellent journalism about an unprecedented presidency, written in an extraordinary time.

Trump bought a 6-foot-tall portrait of himself with charity money. We may have found it.
By David A. Fahrenthold

During the 2016 election, Washington Post reporter David A. Farenthold turned his eyes to Trump’s personal charity and oft-broken promises of charitable donations. Among the many resulting headlines, none was more bizarre or evocative than “Trump bought a 6-foot-tall portrait of himself with charity money. We may have found it.” The story doesn’t disappoint. The search for the painting, a novelty rendered in just a few minutes by a former employee of the prop comic Gallagher, offered a window into just how flagrantly Trump abused his foundation’s checkbook, as well as the depths of his vanity. The painting was neither the only, nor the largest, Trump portrait allegedly purchased with money from his own charity. The Donald J. Trump Foundation was shut down weeks after the story was published, and the president was fined $2 million for misusing its funds.

How Macedonian spammers are using Facebook groups to feed you fake news
By Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander

The 2016 election revealed to many how social media and fake news could be used to manipulate and divide a population. Few have done more to push the beat forward than BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman, whose free Verification Handbook is a must-read for aspiring online sleuths. A week before the 2016 election, Silverman co-authored a story with researcher Lawrence Alexander about 140 pro-Trump websites publishing fake news from Macedonia. It also details how they manipulated social media to send the content viral. Reading it now, the article feels like something of a template for so much great reporting to follow by reporters who learned from Silverman’s example.

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Autocracy: Rules for survival
By Masha Gessen

Two days after Trump’s election, the New York Review of Books published “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” by Masha Gessen. The writer had been a journalist and activist in Vladmir Putin’s Russia before leaving due to personal threats from politicians, and she recognized the instincts of an autocrat in Trump’s campaign. The story, and Gessen’s six rules for living under autocracy, set the tone for much of what was to come.

A woman approached The Post with dramatic — and false — tale about Roy Moore. She appears to be part of undercover sting operation.
By Shawn Boburg, Aaron C. Davis, and Alice Crites

Throughout his presidency, Trump has boosted far-right outlets with a loose relationship to truth, like Breitbart and One America News, into household names. Another such outlet, Project Veritas, apparently directed an employee to plant a false story in the Washington Post about a sexual encounter with Senate candidate Roy Moore. The goal seemed to be to undermine real allegations against Moore by numerous women who said they were sexually assaulted by him as teenagers. However, careful reporting by Post journalists exposed the sting and revealed the deceitful tactics of far-right actors who brand themselves as journalists.

Listen to children who’ve just been separated from their parents at the border
By Ginger Thompson

Few scoops made a bigger impact on the national debate around Trump’s immigration policy than a recording of children crying in a detention center while a border patrol agent made jokes. They’d just been separated from their parents. The audio was obtained by Ginger Thompson and kickstarted ProPublica’s effort to document the realities inside detention centers around the country in their Zero Tolerance series.

The Designated mourner
By Fintan O’Toole

Fintan O’Toole’s deeply researched profile of then-primary candidate Joe Biden calls the president elect “the most gothic figure in American politics.” It’s a sensitive and critical examination of how Biden’s personal and public grief shaped his political fortunes, for better and for worse. O’Toole reconciles Biden’s scandals (the Anita Hill hearings, the plagiarism that ended his first presidential campaign, opposition to busing programs, Hunter Biden’s business with Burisma) with the unity candidate he presented on debate stages, all through the lens of tragedy.

Long concealed records show Trump’s chronic losses and years of tax avoidance
By Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig, and Mike McIntire

After obtaining what might have been the most sought-after documents of the Trump era, the New York Times published a detailed accounting of the president’s tax returns. The story revealed potential conflicts of interest, looming financial troubles, massive losses, and the unforgettable sum—$750, somehow more memorable than had it been $0—that Trump paid in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017. And in spite of its arcane source material, it was both meticulous and digestible.

Data disappeared
By Samanth Subramanian and HuffPost

Samanth Subramanian’s story for the HuffPost’s Highline magazine is a meticulous look at the Trump administration’s assault on public data, which had a devastating impact on the public’s understanding of the COVID-19 outbreak and the ability of public health workers to respond. But the story digs further, revealing a pattern of data deletion, manipulation, and privatization across government agencies which could potentially impact policy for years to come.

The great interviews

Trump’s presidency was equally challenging for broadcast journalists who had to adapt to covering a president who has made more than 23,000 false claims to date since assuming office. Interviewers, especially, had to adjust their approach, and Trump’s presidency has been punctuated with headline-grabbing interviews with journalists who had to fact-check a sitting president in real time, often sustaining attacks in the process. There was Chris Wallace’s July interview on the White House lawn, followed by Jonathan Swan’s grilling later that month, and Lesley Stahl’s October interview for 60 Minutes, which was cut short when Trump abruptly left the studio. Notable on radio was Mary Louise Kelly’s January interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which grew contentious when he was asked about foreign policy in Ukraine, which was at the center of Trump’s ongoing impeachment.

Ian W. Karbal is a former CJR fellow.