The Media Today

Trump—and the press—make history

April 3, 2023
Former US President Donald Trump, center, during an announcement at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, US, on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022. Trump formally entered the 2024 US presidential race, making official what he's been teasing for months just as many Republicans are preparing to move away from their longtime standard bearer. Photographer: Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg

On Thursday night, reports filtered through that a grand jury in New York had voted to indict Donald Trump in the Stormy Daniels hush-money case. In the hours before the news broke, only a single cameraman was on duty outside the courthouse in Manhattan; online, some news consumers found out what had happened not from the New York Times or the Washington Post, but from the site Discussing Film, which tweeted that the “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York star Donald Trump has been indicted on criminal charges.” Major news organizations announced that with the indictment now handed up, they could close the book on their coverage of Trump. “We feel it would be irresponsible of us as journalists to continue our exhaustive reporting on a story that has clearly reached an end,” CNN boss Chris Licht said.

Just kidding: the above was a made-up quote attributed to Licht by the satirical site The Onion in order to parody major news organizations’ actual response to the indictment news, which was wall-to-wall bedlam. Immediately after the Times broke the news of the indictment, cable-news networks went into the “special coverage” tunnel, convening their on-the-spot correspondents and panels of pundits; the major broadcast networks, meanwhile, cut into their regularly scheduled programming. There were camera shots of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and of his stationary private plane (because time is a flat circle). On Fox—where, per much recent media chatter, Trump had fallen out of favor—hosts and talking heads literally gasped as the indictment news came through, then came to Trump’s defense, describing the indictment as a “Rubicon moment” and inviting Trump to call in to discuss the case on air. (Again, flat circle.) Meanwhile, print and digital coverage broke out the banner headlines and all manner of other bells and whistles. To illustrate that Trump would have to travel from Florida to New York to be arraigned, the Times put the two places on a map, just in case we’d forgotten where they were.

The frenzy continued into Friday: according to a Stanford University tool that tracks cable-news discussions, Friday was the second-most Trump-saturated day since he left office in January 2021, only trailing March 18 of this year, the day Trump posted (incorrectly) predicting his imminent arrest in the hush-money case. The coverage trended down a bit over the weekend (over at the Post this morning, a story about Trump’s legal woes in a different case topped the homepage). But the hush-money case remained a huge topic of conversation, not least on the Sunday shows yesterday. Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, pulled, if not a full Ginsburg, then at least more than half of one, serving up his typical, impeccably centrist bromides about national unity. Trump’s lawyers were similarly visible, while Meet the Press had on Cyrus Vance, Jr., the predecessor to Alvin Bragg, the district attorney in the Trump case.

Vance was an impressive guest, in theory. The problem, in practice, was that he hadn’t actually seen the indictment in Trump’s case—his answer to each of the first four questions he faced was some variation on “I don’t know.” Indeed, no one commenting on the indictment over the weekend has yet seen the charges against Trump, since those remain under seal for now. Talking heads sometimes stressed this uncertainty over the weekend. Often, though, this didn’t hold them back from venturing opinions or speculation. (“The Trump indictment is a poor test case for prosecuting a former president,” the Post’s editorial board declared, of charges that it hasn’t seen yet.) And the factual gaps in coverage were otherwise filled with much the same sort of coverage that I complained about in this space last week, including chatter about Trump’s mood (we get it already, he’s feeling “defiant”) and the optics of the impending arraignment, among other things. “Trump Flourishes in the Glare of His Indictment,” one Times headline read over the weekend. “Welcome Back to The Trump Show,” read another.

On Friday, Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, tweeted that it was a “good day to avoid TV news. Huge story of massive interest chasing almost no facts. The entirety of what is known about the indictment can be conveyed in a few minutes, and yet hours and hours of programing must be made from it. Everyone knows of this, but the ceremony goes on.” It’s worth taking a moment to consider why this was the case, from the point of view of traditional considerations of newsworthiness, even though the answer might seem obvious. As Rosen noted, the story had scant facts to drive it, with the next significant developments not expected until tomorrow. The indictment wasn’t exactly surprising or new either; the timing caught the media somewhat unawares, but the indictment itself has been anticipated for weeks, and the anticipation has itself been a huge story (again, just see my previous two newsletters).

The confirmation of the indictment involved both Trump and electoral politics, two reliable drivers of media attention even if neither possesses any inherent, irreducible quality of newsworthiness. The indictment certainly intensified an ongoing story of conflict, and it was, at least on its face, dramatic. But even this latter judgment was open to contestation. On Thursday night, Rachel Maddow popped up in her old 9pm Eastern timeslot on MSNBC. Her presence was itself a sign of the perceived bigness of the news; these days, Maddow is only scheduled to host on Monday nights, otherwise parachuting in only for major news events. But Maddow led into her show by predicting with “very high probability” that the story of the Trump case from here on in is “going to be boring.” She added: “I’m not sure either side ideologically is prepared for that; I don’t think the punditocracy is prepared for that; I don’t think you and I tonight are prepared for that. Because this feels like really big news, and really big news feels like it has a lot of momentum. But as far as I can tell, this is about a legal proceeding starting.” The story of Trump’s indictment, Maddow continued, could take a long time, and advance in incremental, technical steps that feel like “reading the small print on the back of a lottery ticket.”

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This, of course, is fine: the point of the legal system is (or at least should be) to produce just outcomes in a fair way, not to offer the viewership experience of Wrestlemania (or even Law & Order). The press should bear this in mind as the case now advances. News organizations should assign journalists to keep a close eye on the proceedings, of course; from what we know of this case, it involves allegations that are very serious, even if, as I wrote two weeks ago, some legal pundits have downplayed it as the one with the stripper. But it doesn’t have to be the biggest story of the day every day (or, arguably, any day), and if there are no new facts to report, we don’t need to contrive them to fill airtime, or, worse, let Trump’s provocations fill it for us.

After his expected arraignment tomorrow, Trump is planning to deliver a prime-time address from Mar-a-Lago. Already, media critics are warning that it will likely be stuffed with lies and that networks shouldn’t feel obliged to carry it live—the latest iteration of a familiar Trump-era debate. This is a fair concern. But it strikes me that there’s another compelling reason not to carry the address live: the likelihood that it will be, to borrow Maddow’s word, boring.

There are compelling reasons to keep a close eye on the speech, if not to broadcast it live, not least the threat of inciting rhetoric on Trump’s part. Trump is being charged in a febrile political atmosphere and at a time of rising threats to democracy, trends that are critically important for the media to cover in general, and that are central to the Trump case. For these reasons among others, Trump is not a normal defendant, and so it would be a stretch to say that he merits only as much coverage as one of those (which, as Maddow pointed out, is not very much). Still, we should be wary that news coverage—and, in particular, the volume of it—doesn’t communicate, even implicitly, that because this case is exceptional it is thus necessarily an aberration.

Which brings us back to what I see as the principal reason for the perceived newsworthiness of the confirmation of Trump’s indictment, even in the absence of new facts and high immediate drama or surprise: namely, the historic nature of the news. The first indictment of a former president does feel like a Where were you when? moment (even if the answer was Looking for tweets about Home Alone 2). An event making history can often make it legitimately newsworthy in the present. But the press has its role to play in writing history, too, or at least the first draft of it—and, at least in Trump’s case, leaning too hard on the concept of the historic can lead coverage to take on a conservative sheen, at least with a small “c.” Like so much mainstream Trump coverage over the years, some of the analysis of his indictment has felt nostalgic for a political era that probably never existed, and certainly doesn’t anymore. For journalists, the question Where were you when? matters less than Where are we now?

Other notable stories:

  • On Friday, the judge in the defamation case that Dominion Voting Systems has brought against Fox News over the network’s coverage of Trumpworld’s 2020 election lies ruled that the case should advance to trial, and sided with Dominion on the crucial matter of whether or not Fox broadcast false claims about the company; the network has insisted that the First Amendment protected claims made during its coverage, but the judge ruled that it “is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.” The judge left it for a jury to decide whether Fox acted with “actual malice” in its coverage of Dominion—the legal standard of knowing or reckless disregard for the truth that defamation plaintiffs must meet in cases involving public figures. Jeremy W. Peters and Katie Robertson have more for the Times.
  • For Vox, Aja Romano makes the case that much mainstream news coverage is currently failing the trans community. Legacy media, Romano writes, has allowed “bad actors to weaponize the research around transgender identity,” let anti-trans myths circulate without criticizing them, and hidden behind the excuse of “just asking questions.” Such coverage, Romano writes, has subsequently bolstered anti-trans legislation.
  • Yesterday, Maksim Fomin, a militantly pro-war Russian blogger better known as Vladlen Tatarsky, was killed in a bombing at a cafe in St. Petersburg where he was giving a public talk. Prominent Russian politicians pointed the finger at the government of Ukraine, but Ukrainian officials pinned the bombing on internal dissent within Russia. The killing echoed the car bombing, last year, of the commentator Daria Dugina.
  • Over the weekend, the ruling junta in Burkina Faso expelled two journalists with the French titles Le Monde and Libération, without giving a reason. In other press-freedom news, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on the authorities in Kenya to stop harassing journalists covering protests. And the Algerian journalist Ihsane El Kadi was sentenced to three years in jail. (Mercy Tonnia Orengo wrote about his case for CJR.)
  • And Le Monde interviewed Andrea Tornielli, a Catholic journalist who covered the Vatican before his appointment as editorial director of its own media outlets, about the way he approaches his work. Asked about the culture of omerta inside the church, Tornielli said that “there has been, in the past, been a culture of dissimulation in the church. We have definitively to leave that behind, there’s no doubt about that.”

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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.