The Media Today

Has the press learned to cover Trump better? The past week suggests not.

March 27, 2023
Former President Donald Trump throws hats into the crowd prior to speaking at a rally, Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022, in Conroe, Texas. (Jason Fochtman/Houston Chronicle via AP)

A few weeks before the 2020 presidential election, I teamed up with Pete Vernon, the former author of this newsletter, to examine how the mainstream press had covered the presidency of Donald Trump. We observed “a clear picture of an industry whose basic practices and rhythms have conspired, time and again, to downplay demagoguery, let Trump and his defenders off the hook, and drain resources and attention from crucial longer-term storylines.” Crucially, we wrote, Trump’s “ability to act as the press’s assignment editor—be it by design or accident of his erratic personality (and there are strong opinions on both sides of that debate)—remains undimmed.” Pete and I hoped that, whether Trump returned to the White House or not, the press would learn from its failures and stop indulging him, obsessing over his “mood” and “tone,” and publishing euphemistic coverage of his racism. But even after Joe Biden won the election, the press remained attached to Trump, and I have found myself having to monitor the same tired tropes. The past week was, in my view, the most infuriating week since Trump’s presidency.

The circus began last weekend, when Trump posted on Truth Social, his flailing social network, that he would be arrested on Tuesday in the New York criminal case involving his payment of hush money to Stormy Daniels. As I wrote a week ago, the press quickly blasted out Trump’s claim, even though it turned out to be based on nothing more than media speculation. Even as Tuesday came and went without an arrest, the breathless coverage did not let up, especially on cable news, where journalists and pundits second-guessed every twitch, and every idle moment, of the prosecutors and grand jury. By Friday, Trump was still free, and even many of those involved in producing the coverage seemed to realize they’d been had. “You’d think that we would know better by now, but here we are, being trolled again by Donald Trump,” Susan B. Glasser wrote for The New Yorker. “All week long, prompted by Trump’s all-caps warning, the entire political world talked endlessly and obsessively about the former President, for whom such P.R. is exactly the point.”

Still, over the weekend, the press continued to invoke the possibility of an arrest. In its coverage of an event in Waco, Texas, on Saturday, the New York Times ran a headline: “Trump Puts His Legal Peril at Center of First Big Rally for 2024.” The subheading gave him credit for reining in his worst impulses before the crowd—“his attacks were less personal and caustic than in recent days”—but if that was true at all, it was only by absurd comparison. In recent days, Trump threatened “potential death & destruction” upon his arrest and referred to Alvin Bragg—a prosecutor in the case, who is Black—as an “animal” under the sway of George Soros, invoking racist and anti-Semitic tropes (which were unevenly characterized as such in subsequent coverage). The Times story mentioned those comments. It also described the rally as “a showcase for his enduring showmanship.”

To be fair, some coverage of Trump’s rally accurately communicated the gravity of Trump’s rhetoric: The Guardian described his language as “unusually dehumanising, menacing and dangerous,” even by his standards; a Reuters headline used the word “apocalyptic.” And although the feeding frenzy around Trump’s post was desperately gullible, it wasn’t the only indication of a possible indictment—an arrest could still come soon. But all the breathless coverage channeled many Trump clichés past: There were ample—and sometimes conflicting—reports on his mood (Trump is “defiant,” “significantly disconnected from the severity of his potential legal woes,” “what you see is a lot of false bravado”) and on the optics of a potential perp walk. Both Trump and Bragg were accused of trying to create a “made for TV” moment. And many reporters missed a key point: pronouncements Trump made at his event that indicated what policies he would pursue if he returned to the White House—among them, the largest mass deportation in United States history.

Recently, Jay Rosen, a media professor at New York University, urged news organizations to center “not the odds, but the stakes” heading into the 2024 campaign—a step that would represent a welcome inversion of the horserace-heavy norms of political journalism. I wrote earlier this month that early signs do not suggest that journalists are taking Rosen’s advice. Worse, the latest Trump coverage has swung in the opposite direction, as various political reporters and pundits have weighed whether an arrest might actually be good for Trump politically.

The past week brought highly consequential news stories that were not immediately related to Trump’s arrest or the 2024 campaign, but which the next president will have immense power to shape: a deadly attack on a US base in Syria, US airstrikes in response to that attack, a United Nations report warning that we’re wasting our last chance to avert climate catastrophe. All attracted some smart coverage—but all were also drowned out by Trump’s arrest, which, a full week after I last wrote about it, still has not happened. His ability to act as the press’s assignment editor remains undimmed.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Some news from the home front:
We have rescheduled a forum to answer questions about the series by reporter Jeff Gerth on Russia and Trump, after an earlier planned discussion had to be rescheduled due to the moderator’s illness. It will now take place on April 4. Here are the full details:

A CJR Forum: The president and the press 

Earlier this year, CJR published a series by reporter Jeff Gerth critiquing the coverage of Russian attempts to intervene in the 2016 election and the subsequent Trump presidency. We knew at the time that the articles would elicit strong responses. But we also believe that CJR’s role is to air a range of views about the strengths, challenges, and failings of contemporary media. It is in that spirit that we are organizing this town hall. We will answer questions, respond to criticism, and explain our approach to these stories, applying to ourselves the same transparency and accountability that we seek from the institutions CJR covers. The content of the discussion will be guided entirely by the event’s outside, independent moderator. For more than 60 years, the Columbia Journalism Review has stood for clarity and integrity in news. We continue that tradition and invite you to participate in this discussion. —Jelani Cobb, dean, Columbia Journalism School


* Reporter Jeff Gerth

* CJR Editor and Publisher Kyle Pope

* Columbia Journalism School Dean Jelani Cobb

Moderated by Geeta Anand, dean, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism


Tuesday, April 4, 1 pm to 2:15 pm ET via livestream at this link.

RSVPs required. (If you registered for the February 27 event, you need to re-register.) Questions for the moderator can be submitted in advance via this link. (Questions submitted earlier don’t need to be resubmitted.)

Other notable stories:

  • The Texas Observer, a magazine founded nearly seventy years ago as a voice for liberal Democrats that produced hard-hitting investigative journalism, is closing and laying off its staff. The Texas Tribune’s Sewell Chan and Brandon Formby report that the Observer had long been supported by “a small number of major donors, and wasn’t able to build a broad base of subscribers and members.”
  • Last week, Abby Grossberg, a producer at Fox News, filed a pair of lawsuits against the network, alleging, among other things, that its lawyers coerced her into giving misleading testimony in the defamation case that Dominion Voting Systems filed against Fox. On Friday, Fox fired Grossberg, citing her disclosure of “privileged information.” Fox has strongly denied Grossberg’s claims; Variety’s Brian Steinberg has more details.
  • The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson spoke with Audie Cornish about The Assignment, a new CNN podcast offering “a fresh way to present the news.” The format “allows for nuance and intimacy,” Larson writes. Guests “aren’t chosen to create a spiky point-counterpoint dynamic; their perspectives are unique but tend to complement each other. There’s no squabbling, no overheated rhetoric—but Cornish isn’t shy about digging in.”
  • Israel is in political crisis again this morning after the defense minister urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt a widely criticized overhaul of the judiciary, and Netanyahu fired him. Protesters filled the streets, universities closed, and workers went on strike. Barak Ravid, a Middle East correspondent for Axios, said that he would no longer show up for military reserve service, in protest of Netanyahu’s actions.
  • And a photo of the Pope in a white puffer coat went viral over the weekend—but it was a fake, generated by artificial intelligence. (I definitely did not fall for it.) Ryan Broderick, who writes a newsletter about internet culture, called the photo “the first real mass-level AI misinformation case.” ICYMI, CJR’s Amanda Darrach spoke recently with Fred Ritchin, a former photo editor at the Times, about the threat AI poses to photojournalism.

ICYMI: Live from the Rubble

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.