The Media Today

The dualities of Trump coverage

August 7, 2023
President Donald Trump looks away while answering a question from Jonathan Karl, ABC News chief White House correspondent, during a news conference with the Italian president Sergio Mattarella at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Last week, shortly after Donald Trump was indicted on charges stemming from his efforts to overturn the result of the 2020 election—and for the third time this year overall—he dined at his golf club in New Jersey with executives from Fox News, who reportedly requested the meeting in a bid to persuade Trump to participate in the Republican primary debate that the network is hosting later this month. Trump has indicated that he won’t appear, but he hasn’t ruled out doing so. According to Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, the executives sought to flatter Trump into agreeing, telling him (in the Times reporters’ words) that “he excels on the center stage and that it presents an opportunity for him to show off his debate skills.”

The dinner can be seen as further evidence of the cravenness of Fox; its executives were breaking bread with the man who not only tried to subvert American democracy but also, in the process, contributed to the network paying out the better part of a billion dollars to a company that Trump baselessly claimed helped rig the election. But the dinner was also emblematic of a media dynamic that goes far beyond Fox: the increasingly prevalent split screen between coverage of Trump as 2020-election-subversion suspect and Trump as 2024-election candidate—a split screen that has recently played out everywhere, from TV to adjacent headlines about threats to prosecutors and a cattle call in Iowa, and consecutive political newsletters about Trump’s arraignment and “politically savvy” influence over the mechanisms of the Republican primary in California. It’s a split screen, in other words, between a bid to end democracy and the stuff of democracy—and one that has pointed to other confounding dualities in our coverage of Trump, some of which are new, some of which have been there all along.

With Trump’s prior indictments, my top initial takeaway from the coverage was its sheer breathlessness, which, while instinctively justified by the stakes, often felt uncomfortably like it was playing into Trump’s broader rigging of our attention economy: he played assignment editor with his social media posts; cameras followed him to court like he was O.J. in the white Bronco; punditry often focused on the strength of the cases against him, but also fussed over optics and his mood. Roughly the same things have been true this time—and yet my top takeaway has been how tired and rote a lot of the coverage has felt, despite its persistent wall-to-wall extent. At this point, there is both everything and nothing to say about Trump; the indictment is both unprecedented and precedented, astonishing and unsurprising. Many of the words written and spoken about his subversion campaign have stressed its enormity—and yet I increasingly can’t shake the conclusion that too many reporters and editors have normalized it, at least implicitly, by covering Trump as in any sense a normal candidate for 2024. In recent days, my thoughts have returned to an observation that the media reporter Brian Stelter made in Vanity Fair last month (prior to the latest indictment): that “many news executives and political analysts appear to have succumbed to revisionist history, downplaying Trump’s destruction of a shared reality and his shredding of democratic norms”; that “it’s hard to even recall that sliver of time after January 6 when it seemed like Trump was being excommunicated from American politics.”

In recent days, various reporters and pundits have made the case that as far as Trump’s many legal woes go, this is the big one. This itself feels both obviously true and also like a dangerous argument. The stakes for democracy this time are clear, more obviously so than, say, in a case involving hush-money payments in an extramarital affair with a porn star. And yet—as I wrote after Trump was charged in just such a case, amid a prior outbreak of prosecutor-pundit hand-wringing about its relative unimportance—those charges are serious, too, and merit better than glib dismissal-by-talking-head. It is, of course, possible to take both cases seriously while treating the election case with more gravity. But we should, as always, be wary of grading Trump on a curve. And respect for democracy and the rule of law is at stake across the board in Trump’s indictments, not only in the one to which those concepts are most explicitly central.   

There have been smaller dualities, too, in the coverage of Trump’s latest indictment. Media critics have pounced on them. There’s been the clichéd talk of dueling “realities” between people who like Trump and people who don’t, even though only one such “reality” is rooted in a massive lie. The Times cast the new case, in a headline, as a battle of “lies versus free speech” (the latter being the principal defense of Trump and his lawyers), even though the case is primarily about Trump’s actions; as one law professor told the paper, “Tony Soprano can’t invoke the First Amendment for telling his crew he wants someone whacked.” (At the very least, the print edition of the headline should not, as James Fallows pointed out, have put “lies” in quote marks while allowing free speech to float unmolested.) Then there’s the related question of whether Trump knew he was lying about the election—a question that is at issue in the case but needn’t be legally determinative, even as some coverage has suggested that it might be.

This speaks to a broader duality between legal assessments of Trump’s conduct in trying to overturn the election and journalistic judgments thereof, the latter of which need not meet any defined bar of criminality. As I’ve written before, it is, in the broadest sense, abundantly clear that Trump attempted a coup, or something like it, in the run-up to January 6—we all saw it happen. As the case goes forward, much coverage will rightly parse its legal technicalities, and Trump will, of course, have the right to publicly mount a defense. But we must be careful not to be led too far into a thicket of sophistry. We got an early glimpse of the dangers yesterday when John Lauro, Trump’s attorney, pulled a rare “full Ginsburg” on the Sunday shows. Some of his questioners offered strong pushback to his arguments—unusually so, in my view, for a genre more often defined by civility and consensus—but didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, challenge his every absurdity. (Perhaps most offensively, Lauro told CNN’s Dana Bash that “the press should be defending free speech in this case”; Bash left that claim alone and moved on.)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Some of the dualities that recur in Trump coverage—especially those that seem most contradictory—are surely a function of his having broken our brains during close to a decade of relentless overexposure, or of other logic-bending aspects of his conduct. (He has, for example, both courted and abused the press; at his Fox dinner last week, he reportedly complained about a recent interview with Bret Baier that he initially praised as “fair.”) However we behave toward Trump, he will find a way to abuse us; that’s the nature of authoritarianism. Other dualities, though, stem from the media’s own practices: our instinct to boil down complex dynamics into opposing “sides”—or, conversely, to contrive opposing sides when a dynamic is clear, for fear of otherwise seeming biased. The answer, here, is simply better coverage. When the latest Trump case gets complicated, we should say so. But we shouldn’t let that obscure or distort the basic, extremely well-documented facts of his profoundly antidemocratic conduct.

Breaking out of the duality of the indictment/campaign split screen will require more fundamental shifts in our attitude and attention management. The most useful coverage of late has treated this split screen as porous, interrogating not whether Trump is the inevitable Republican nominee, and based on what numbers, but how this could possibly happen, and the consequences it suggests. The least useful coverage is that which, essentially, gawks at Trump as he struts from one side of the screen to the other. This is the logic that treats him as a ratings draw, and of which the Fox executives seem guilty. Even on this narrow point, they aren’t alone.

Other notable stories:

  • A week ago, I wrote in this newsletter about a scandal at Texas A&M University, which botched the hiring of Kathleen McElroy—a former Times editor and academic at the University of Texas at Austin—to revive its journalism program amid right-wing backlash to her professional history and, as she put it, “hysteria” over her involvement in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Late last week, an internal review found that top officials at Texas A&M privately opposed McElroy’s appointment on explicitly ideological grounds. University lawyers did not find evidence of race- or gender-based discrimination against McElroy in the process, but nonetheless agreed to pay her a million-dollar settlement.
  • HuffPost’s Christopher Mathias reports that Richard Hanania, an increasingly prominent conservative writer, “used a pen name for years to write for white supremacist publications and was a formative voice during the rise of the racist ‘alt-right.’” A decade later, “writing under his real name, Hanania has ensconced himself in the national mainstream media,” Mathias reports, “writing op-eds in the country’s biggest papers, bending the ears of some of the world’s wealthiest men and lecturing at prestigious universities, all while keeping his past white supremacist writings under wraps.”
  • Also for HuffPost, Rowaida Abdelaziz spoke with Abdullah Hasan, the first openly practicing Muslim to serve as a White House spokesperson, as he steps down from his role. “Being one of the first comes with a lot of responsibility. It’s also special in many ways,” Hasan said. “I’m very mindful that someone with a name like Abdullah Hasan carries a stigma, and I’m often reminded of that stigma when I see certain reactions on Twitter or elsewhere with statements or tweets I put out under my name.”
  • The Financial Times profiled Holger Friedrich, who owns the Berliner Zeitung newspaper but nonetheless says he would advise “any person with responsibility or [a public] exposure level to avoid contact with most journalists.” Since entering the newspaper business in 2019, Friedrich has faced a string of controversies, including allegations that he published anti-vax and pro-Russian content and that he was once a Stasi informant.
  • And—according to the US-backed broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, citing a reform-minded news site in Iran—two Iranian journalists covering the current women’s soccer World Cup in Australia and New Zealand “do not plan to return to their home country and will seek asylum abroad.” As RFE/RL notes, athletes and others have recently sought asylum outside of Iran following a harsh crackdown on dissent.

ICYMI: A Very Online summer

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.