In September 2016, Salena Zito, who was then covering voters in the heartland, wrote of then-candidate Donald Trump, in a column for The Atlantic: “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” The phrase quickly slipped into Trumplore. Trump allies, such as Peter Thiel, invoked it to argue that while reporters and fact checkers obsessed over the fine print of Trump’s pronouncements on, say, banning Muslims from the US and building a wall at the southern border, his supporters were hearing more general pledges to, say, reform immigration. Trump critics, such as Dara Lind, then of Vox, complained about the moral and factual slipperiness of such logic—criticisms that were vindicated when Trump moved to literally ban Muslims and literally build his wall almost as soon as he took office. Ever since then, the literally/seriously motif has echoed, Zelig-like, through the press. We’ve heard of Trump being taken seriously and literally, seriously but not literally (by the media this time), and neither seriously nor literally—the latter because, as The Atlantic’s David Frum put it last year, the president’s “words are as worthless as Trump Organization IOUs.”
In large part, the phrase and the many variations thereupon are hard to pin down because Trump himself is hard to pin down. Since taking office, he’s said literally tens of thousands of things that aren’t true while also pursuing his more extreme campaign promises, while also threatening core tenets of American democracy, while also serving as a perpetual object of derision. Last Thursday, he handed us a paradigmatic example of such contradictions. Trump wrote in a tweet that mail-in voting is fraudulent, and suggested that the presidential election should be delayed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.” Literally, the tweet was a complete mess. There’s no evidence mail-in voting is compromised, and Trump’s differentiation of the practice from absentee voting (“which is good”) made no sense, since the terms are interchangeable. Also, Trump does not have the power to delay the election.
Related: Drive-by journalism in Trumplandia
Some Trump boosters employed a version of the seriously-not-literally defense: the tweet, they said, was a joke, which nonetheless raised valid broader concerns about mail-in voting. (Again, no.) Many other observers, however, took the missive extremely seriously. Not all of them were the usual suspects. Leading Republicans who aren’t in the habit of slapping Trump down swiftly did so; Steven Calabresi—a cofounder of the right-wing Federalist Society, who defended the president against Mueller and impeachment—wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that the tweet was “fascistic” and “itself grounds for the president’s immediate impeachment again.” Lawrence Wilkerson, a retired Army colonel, appeared on cable news to outline bipartisan efforts, in which he is involved, to war-game what might happen if Trump refuses to leave office. (“This man could be serious,” Wilkerson said.) Trump’s tweet continued to drive discussion on the Sunday shows. On CNN, Dana Bash asked Jim Clyburn, a top House Democrat, about remarks he made comparing Trump to Hitler. Clyburn clarified that he thinks Trump is like Mussolini. (Putin is like Hitler.)
Also on the Sunday shows, Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, attempted to reverse course. “We’re going to hold an election on November 3,” he told CBS, “and the president is going to win.” Trump’s tweet, however, is not so easy to walk back. In recent weeks, he’s repeatedly sown disinformation about mail-in voting, and his campaign has repeatedly refused to confirm that it plans to accept the election result as legitimate; two weeks ago, Trump himself said as much, during an interview with Fox’s Chris Wallace. The pattern is clear: Trump is on course to lose the election, and is working ahead of time to discredit the result.
On ABC yesterday, Jonathan Swan, of Axios, said that his recent reporting, including his own interview with Trump, clearly suggests as much. “You could see a vote on Election Day in which Donald Trump is doing very well—because his people have gone to the polls and Democrats have overwhelmingly voted by mail—and then, as the results start coming in with the mail vote, in the next couple of days, Donald Trump will say, See, I told you so, it’s fraudulent, and then try and launch various forms of litigation,” Swan said. “I think that’s where this is heading.” The press can’t see the future, of course, but Trump is making it abundantly clear that he won’t leave office without a fight, and a dirty one if necessary. That demands to be taken both literally and seriously—even if the president can’t actually postpone Election Day itself.
In December 2016, after Trump had won, the conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg called the seriously-not-literally distinction “fairly ridiculous hogwash as a prescription for how to treat an actual president, or president-elect, of the United States.” As an example of a claim that demanded to be taken literally (and debunked on such terms), Goldberg referenced Trump’s absurd lie that millions of people had voted illegally for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. That claim was swiftly and brutally fact-checked; nonetheless, some pundits ridiculed it, given that Trump was, after all, complaining about an election he’d just won. This was ridiculous—but it also had the effect of convincing many voters that American elections are rigged long before 2020 loomed into view. In hindsight, we all should have taken Trump’s election lies—indeed, his campaign as a whole—uniformly and urgently seriously back in 2016. Judging by the stern recent coverage of Trump’s tweet, we seem to have learned a collective lesson since then. We mustn’t relapse.
Below, more on the election:
- Managing expectations, public edition: On CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday, host Brian Stelter asked journalists and experts what the press can do to help ensure public confidence in the election. “People in the media should be letting the public know that a slow count is a fair count, and that trying to rush things is just going to create sloppiness,” Rick Hasen, an election-law specialist at the University of California, Irvine, said. Erin Geiger Smith, the author of Thank You for Voting, added, “I really think any story that we write talking about the problems has to also answer the question: Am I giving the voter the information that they need to make sure that their vote can count?” (ICYMI, I rounded up voting-coverage tips from Hasen and others in June.)
- Managing expectations, journalist edition: For his latest column, Ben Smith, media writer at the Times, asked executives, anchors, and analysts in major newsrooms what might happen if/when the election result is delayed. “What the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that,” Smith writes. “Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations—rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites—that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.”
- A break with convention: Over the weekend, Frank E. Lockwood, of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, reported that Republican officials are planning to totally exclude reporters from the party’s nominating convention, which is slated to be held, in a stripped-back kinda way, in Charlotte later this month. The officials blamed restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but many reporters smelled a pretext to slight the press. Yesterday, a spokesperson for the convention appeared to backtrack, saying that “no final decision has been made” on media access.
- Enemies, foreign and domestic: In recent days, US intelligence officials and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign have confirmed that foreign actors have already sought to compromise election infrastructure and campaign communications, and are busily spreading disinformation on social media. When Steve Peoples, of the AP, asked the Trump campaign whether it has been handed any election materials by foreign actors, the campaign refused to say. Biden’s campaign, by contrast, replied, “Absolutely not.”
- Department of Yeah, Right: Last week, John F. Harris, of Politico, assessed the possibility that Trump could take a completely different course of action to disputing the election result—by bailing on his reelection bid altogether. “Even if one doesn’t really think Trump will drop out of the race—as a proselytizer of the theory I acknowledge it is a stretch—it is worth examining the reasons he just might, as a way of illuminating the bleakness of his situation,” Harris writes.
Other notable stories:
- Last week, Shane Harris, of the Post, reported that the intelligence division of the Department of Homeland Security compiled and distributed dossiers on two journalists covering the federal response to protests in Portland, Oregon. According to Harris and Nick Miroff, Brian Murphy, the acting head of DHS’s intelligence division, has since been removed from his post and reassigned, pending an investigation. Over the weekend, Politico’s Betsy Woodruff Swan reported that the intelligence division has recently skirted scrutiny from an internal civil liberties watchdog that previously reviewed its output.
- For the Times, Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman ran the rule over the media-bashing tactics of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary. “The White House briefings have become insignificant to the job of the press corps and even to the president, who doesn’t always watch the theatrical displays done mostly for him,” Haberman wrote on Twitter. Separately, Haberman also hit out at Dr. Deborah Birx, a senior White House health official who said yesterday that the Times failed to contact her for a coronavirus story that painted her in a bad light. This, Haberman said, was untrue.
- For CJR, Pat Nabong spoke with Rosem Morton, a full-time nurse who is also a photographer. National Geographic recently published a series of images documenting Morton’s work during the pandemic. “I think both roles offer you a lot of exercises in empathy,” Morton says, of being both a medical worker and a journalist. “As a nurse, in a caring profession, you always care about what the other person is feeling and thinking.”
- Today marks one year since a gunman murdered twenty-three people, the vast majority of them Hispanic, at a Walmart in El Paso, one of two mass shootings in the space of a few hours. (The other was in Dayton, Ohio.) Yesterday, the El Paso Times published a special section on the massacre, including reflections from 911 call-center staff, trauma surgeons, and a Mexican family that is still struggling. “It feels like we’re in a nightmare,” the family said.
- On Friday, News Corp revealed that James Murdoch, son of Rupert, has resigned from its board—all but cutting any formal tie to his father’s media empire. James, who has distanced himself from the conservative politics of the Murdoch press, including around climate change, blamed “certain editorial content” and “other strategic decisions” for his exit. Some observers reckon News Corp’s financial performance was also at issue.
- BuzzFeed has established a new site, BuzzFeed Shopping, to sell products to consumers directly, without routing them elsewhere. Media companies including BuzzFeed have long earned commission by hosting affiliate links, which steer readers to third-party shopping sites—but changing consumer behavior has publishers wondering whether they can cut out the middleman. The Journal’s Ann-Marie Alcántara has more.
- For CJR, Tony Haile offers local outlets a road map for competing with the Times, which is increasingly dominant in terms of subscriptions. “Local publishers may not believe that they are competing with the Times, but the Times believes it is competing with them,” Haile writes. Fighting back will require “leveraging networks, rethinking how content works in a paywalled universe, and unlearning some of the lessons of the open internet.”
- The British government is moving to hire a White House–style press secretary to front televised briefings. Opposition lawmakers aren’t impressed—they claim the appointment is a bid to skirt parliamentary scrutiny, and may fall foul of rules banning political staffers from engaging in “controversy.” Also in the UK, the BBC took down a video depicting Rishi Sunak, Britain’s finance minister, as a superhero following allegations of bias.
- And Matt Flegenheimer, of the Times, has a mischievous anecdote about Sen. Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois Democrat who is in contention to be Joe Biden’s running mate. Last year, after Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign hired away one of her top comms aides, Duckworth taped a fake media interview slamming Buttigieg, and had it sent to the aide. The whole thing turned out to be an elaborate prank.
ICYMI: It is possible to compete with the New York Times. Here’s how.
Update: This piece has been updated to correct a detail about the El Paso shooting.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.