The Media Today

Where does Trump coverage go from here?

February 3, 2023
Former President Donald Trump walks on stage during an event Friday, July 8, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

In the fifties and sixties, announcers at Elvis Presley concerts had to tell fans that “Elvis has left the building,” lest they refuse to leave, hoping for an encore. The image evokes Donald Trump, who left the building two years ago and is desperate to move back in. A loud mass of Americans are calling for Trump’s return to the White House, though the mass is probably shrinking, and other measures—his growing legal exposure, a lack of money, voter exhaustion—indicate that he may not make it back after all.

Nonetheless, the question of how the press treats, and has treated, Trump surged back up again this week, including in the pages of CJR. At the beginning of the week, we published an encyclopedic, four-part series by Jeff Gerth, an investigative reporter, on the media’s coverage of Trump’s ties to Russia, arguing, in effect, that the nation’s biggest news outlets got ahead of themselves. As I wrote in an editors’ note (using a term favored by Trump’s supporters):

“No narrative did more to shape Trump’s relations with the press than Russiagate. The story, which included the Steele dossier and the Mueller report among other totemic moments, resulted in Pulitzer Prizes as well as embarrassing retractions and damaged careers. For Trump, the press’s pursuit of the Russia story convinced him that any sort of normal relationship with the press was impossible.

The reaction to the piece reflected the divisions in the country, and its media. Voices in the right-wing press, including at Fox News and the Washington Times, hailed our report as proof of the media assault on Trump that they’ve been hyping all along. Trump cheered that view on Truth Social, his own, struggling social-media platform. Other people said, often on Twitter, that they hated the piece for giving Trump the microphone (Gerth interviewed him in the course of his reporting) and for arguing that, when it came to Trump’s ties to Russia, there was no there there (which isn’t the case, and which the story didn’t claim). We’re taking the critiques seriously.

In media circles, passions toward Trump seem only barely to have cooled, even though he’s been out of power for two years. Partly, that is due to a reasonable fear of what could happen to the press, and to specific reporters, if Trump and his cabal return. Those threats are real. But there is, I think, also a realization that Trump and journalism were entangled in an elaborate cage match, from which neither side particularly benefited.

So how should we cover Trump going forward, as he seeks the presidency again? We’re already being invited to think about it. This week, he sued Bob Woodward, absurdly claiming that he is owed fifty million dollars for copyright and other violations after Woodward published an audiobook based on taped conversations with Trump.

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As Oliver Darcy reported in an excellent piece for CNN, legal experts immediately dismissed the lawsuit as a nuisance, and Darcy reminded reporters that the former president has a long history of filing, or merely threatening, lawsuits and even legislation that go nowhere. (Remember his pledge to “open up” the nation’s libel laws?) Despite this history, news outlets across the country reported the threat against Woodward credulously, without important context. “If the press is still failing to do its due diligence on a simple story like this,” Darcy wrote, “that does not bode well as the country hurtles toward what is already gearing up to be an ugly 2024 presidential race.”

Six years after Trump walked into the White House, the press remains conflicted about him, outraged and preoccupied at the same time. The solution, I think, is to let every story stand for itself; broader “narratives” are dangerous things when covering a messy political reality. Sometimes a story calls for Trump to be ignored; sometimes for a drumbeat of continuous, critical coverage; sometimes for a deep breath and nothing else. You can read Gerth’s accounting of the errors in the Trump-Russia story here.

Other notable stories:

  • For the Washington Post, Wesley Lowery profiled Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine journalist whose work on the 1619 Project—a major initiative centering slavery in the American story, past and present—was recently expanded into a six-part series on Hulu. Hannah-Jones, Lowery writes, is part of “a class of Black journalists working for historically White publications who embrace the spirit of the Black press, which for centuries has seen its role as three-pronged: documenting contemporary realities of a people underserved by the White press; surfacing hard historical truths that the White public would prefer to forget; and standing up on behalf of a race that has been devalued and degraded from before America was conceived as a nation.”
  • Yesterday saw the premiere of Inside Story, a show—produced, in collaboration with the Marshall Project and Vice, by people who used to be incarcerated—that “explores issues of crime, punishment and the prison industry for a target audience of the imprisoned and anyone else who might value such a perspective,” Kalia Richardson reports for the Times. The series “will air weekly inside correctional facilities in 48 states, as well as on the Vice News YouTube channel, the Marshall Project website and the Vice News channel on Plex, a streaming platform,” per Richardson. It grew out of a print outlet that Lawrence Bartley, himself formerly incarcerated, developed with the Marshall Project.
  • Miles J. Herszenhorn, of the Harvard Crimson, reports that Joan Donovan, a prominent expert on online misinformation, is being “forced out” of the university’s Kennedy School, and that a research project that she leads will conclude by the summer of 2024. Herszenhorn reports, citing sources, that the school’s dean, with whom Donovan clashed, told her that her “prominence” at the school was the reason for her ouster, but school officials have since pointed to bureaucratic reasons for the decision, and insisted that the school remains committed to the study of mis- and disinformation.
  • According to Politico, three Republican Congressmen are urging House leadership to strip Congressional press credentials from reporters for Al Jazeera until the network, which is funded by Qatar, officially registers as a foreign agent. (Al Jazeera has long said that it is editorially independent.) Any intervention by Kevin McCarthy, the House speaker, would break with current practice around Congressional credentialing decisions, which have “long been under the auspices of journalists, not politicians.”
  • And Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein reports that Roy Wood, Jr., a correspondent on The Daily Show, will be the featured comedian at this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which will (regrettably) take place again in April. In other DC-events news, Sarah Huckabee Sanders—who once misled White House reporters as Trump’s press secretary and is now governor of Arkansas—will respond to the State of the Union.

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