The Media Today

Context collapse

March 18, 2024
Donald Trump speaks with supporters at a campaign rally at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona, in 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

On Saturday, Donald Trump spoke at a rally in Ohio. Before he began, an announcer instructed the crowd to rise in tribute to the insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6, and Trump himself stood and saluted the national anthem as recorded by the “J6 Prison Choir.” During his speech, Trump promised to help the insurrectionists if he wins reelection, referring to them as “patriots” and “hostages.” He claimed that the 2020 election, the result of which precipitated the insurrection, had been rigged against him, and said that if he doesn’t win in November, “I don’t think you’re going to have another election, or certainly not an election that’s meaningful.” He made confusing remarks about Joe Biden beating “Barack Hussein Obama” in a nationwide election, and referred to some immigrants as “animals,” adding, “I don’t know if you call them people, in some cases. They’re not people, in my opinion.” He used a vulgarity to refer to Fani Willis, who is prosecuting him in Georgia for attempting to overturn the 2020 election. He referred to the governor of California as “Gavin New-scum.”

These remarks were covered prominently by several major outlets. But it was a different comment that dominated discussion of the rally—one in which Trump predicted (or threatened) “a bloodbath for the country” if he isn’t reelected. Trump’s invocation of the word drove headlines across the media landscape. On TV, Republican politicians were asked to respond to it.

In response, several of them—in addition to Trump’s campaign and other boosters of the former president—claimed that the media was taking the “bloodbath” comment out of context: it came during a section of Trump’s speech about the state of the US auto industry, and was clearly meant, these people said, in an economic sense. Many Trump critics countered that it was fair to highlight the remark, arguing, variously, that Trump doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt given his long history of violent rhetoric, that it’s not at all clear that he was only referring to the auto industry, and that even if he was, his use of the word “bloodbath” was still hyperbolic to the point of demagoguery. Others—from the left to more Trump-skeptical precincts of the right—suggested that Trump’s use of “bloodbath” was at worst ambiguous, and that the media didn’t need to focus on it given other things he indisputably did say at the rally. “I think it’s important we start demanding the media vigorously cover the insane, anti-constitutional, violent and dictator-loving rhetoric Trump uses on a regular basis,” Sarah Longwell, a leading anti-Trump Republican, said. “But when you take things out of context you do more harm than good.”

The to-do over Trump’s remark can be seen as the latest installment in the debate (which we’ve covered often here at CJR) as to how the media ought to handle his rhetoric, given its frequent violence and dishonesty. Nearly a decade after Trump rode down the escalator, it is a debate that media outlets have still yet to resolve. Even before the Ohio rally, it reared its head again last week. Various media critics took CNBC to task for hosting a rambling phone-in interview with Trump without sufficiently pushing back on his talking points. (Watching the interview, CNN’s Oliver Darcy felt transported “to 2015, back when news outlets allowed Trump to phone in to news shows and deliver a drive-by of lies to their audiences.”) The New Yorker’s Susan B. Glasser, meanwhile, took the media as a whole to task for failing to devote sufficient coverage to a prior, equally unhinged Trump rally in Georgia, arguing that his “flood of lies and BS” is now “seen as old news from a candidate whose greatest political success has been to acclimate a large swath of the population to his ever more dangerous alternate reality.”

Such discourse, and the fallout from the Ohio rally in particular, is illustrative not only of the changing contours of the debate over how to handle Trump’s speech, but also of its persistent unsolvability and the muddle that inevitably follows. It demonstrates how well-intentioned observers, united in wanting to get the truth about Trump across to the public, still differ on how to do so. And it shows that how we choose to frame Trump’s words continues to matter, even if some among us would seemingly prefer they speak for themselves.

The debate over how to handle Trump’s speech has fairly closely tracked my time covering the US media. To oversimplify grotesquely, the dominant approach to the question, as I perceive it, has evolved through different phases. There was the phase when news networks gleefully carried Trump’s rallies live, even if (or perhaps because) they thought he had no shot of being president—he was a curiosity, a gimmick; above all he was a ratings draw. (We might call this the “damn good for CBS” phase.) Then there was the phase of treating his rallies as a form of anthropology, a key to unlocking his suddenly very real mass appeal. Then there was the phase of seeing it as irresponsible to broadcast Trump live (at least without some form of real-time fact-checking-by-chyron) due to the information pollution streaming perpetually in his wake—a phase that arguably reached its zenith with Trump’s COVID briefings in 2020, and their associated exhortations to inject bleach.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

As noted, though, these phases are oversimplifications; during all of them, different mainstream media actors recommended taking, or actively did take, a different path. In 2019, Lenore Taylor, the editor of The Guardian’s Australian edition, turned heads among US media observers when she argued in a widely shared op-ed that watching a full, unfiltered Trump press conference had changed her perception of a man she thought she knew well. Taylor realized “how much the reporting of Trump necessarily edits and parses his words, to force it into sequential paragraphs or impose meaning where it is difficult to detect,” she wrote. “In most circumstances, presenting information in as intelligible a form as possible is what we are trained for. But the shock I felt hearing half an hour of unfiltered meanderings from the president of the United States made me wonder whether the editing does our readers a disservice.” Those who feared normalizing Trump’s lies, in other words, might have been normalizing his incoherence instead.

Now—after years of relative dormancy, with a heavy emphasis on relative—the debate is back, and a view similar to Taylor’s seems, to my eye, to have gained purchase, spurred, perhaps, by the free pass granted to Trump on questions of age and gaffe-making (at least when compared with Biden), a widespread public amnesia about Trump’s most extreme comments (which my colleague Cameron Joseph wrote about recently), and a diminished place in the discourse for the art of close fact-checking (which I wrote about last week). In January, The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins argued that “if the glut of attention in 2016 desensitized the nation to Trump, the relative dearth in the past year has turned him into an abstraction”; to counteract this, he suggested, all “politically engaged Americans” (including journalists) should attend a Trump rally to remind themselves of the stakes. “Whether or not it’s news in the conventional sense,” Glasser wrote in her recent New Yorker essay, “it’s easiest to understand the threat that Trump poses to American democracy most clearly when you see it for yourself.” Readers, she advised, should “watch his speeches. Share them widely. Don’t look away.”

Again, though, not everyone seems to agree with such prescriptions, and so the debate has continued—including inside major networks. After Trump won the Iowa caucuses in January, MSNBC did not broadcast his victory speech, with Rachel Maddow telling viewers that to do so would come at the cost of knowingly airing lies; two months later, after Trump cleaned up on Super Tuesday, MSNBC did air at least part of his victory speech, triggering an on-air discussion about the best way to balance fact-checking and exposure. (Yes, on-air graphics were mentioned.) CNN has more consistently aired Trump’s words of late, but not without some internal discussion. According to the New York Times, after Trump won Iowa, network executives debated the fine line between journalistic responsibility and handing Trump free publicity.

As I’ve covered this debate over the years, my thinking on it, too, has gone back and forth. I certainly see the appeal of the arguments advanced by Taylor, Coppins, and Glasser. It does feel as if too many people, journalists included, have become desensitized to much of Trump’s rhetoric and that upping our dosage could help inoculate us again—and as I wrote in 2020, in the wake of Bleachgate, the seriousness inherent to our craft can accidentally imbue Trump’s most rambling words with some sense of meaning when we render them in our coverage. Still, in a busy news cycle, it also still strikes me that it isn’t journalistically tenable to ask audiences to mainline hours of straight-from-the-source Trump, and that’s before we get into the persistent, very valid concerns around handing him free airtime and letting him lie unfiltered. (There’s a fine line between exposure and stenography, even if the intention is to shock.) And it’s hard to imagine people who are already tuning out Trump’s remarks wanting to consume more of them.

The reason this debate has cycled on for so long is because there isn’t a satisfying answer: giving our audiences more direct exposure to Trump comes with legitimate benefits and risks, as does filtering that exposure; one could reasonably fear, meanwhile, that both scenarios might redound to Trump’s advantage in different ways. The debate will surely continue. But it strikes me that—now as always—journalists have certain unavoidable responsibilities in how we frame the story of Trump’s language, responsibilities that even greater exposure to his words cannot mitigate. These come back to the essential element of the “bloodbath” controversy: context.

Ultimately, journalists cannot—and probably should not—make voters feel a certain way about Trump, or even make them pay attention. But we can make sure that we are presenting the full truth of his remarks to those who are. This could involve broadcasting more of his words, but it doesn’t have to—to my ear, at least, airing his whole Ohio speech wouldn’t have cleared up precisely what he meant by “bloodbath,” because his words during that section were rambling and ambiguous (even if my sense is, on balance, that he was using the word in an economic sense). Broadcasting the whole speech would have exposed viewers to all the other things Trump did and said, not least saluting the January 6 insurrectionists. But news coverage summarizing the speech did that, too; at least, some of it did.

And establishing context for the Ohio speech requires more than just watching it—it requires a full, consistent accounting of how often Trump’s rhetoric is violent, and inarguably so. The bigger problem here, as I see it, is not that we aren’t airing Trump’s rhetoric, but that we often aren’t covering it at all, at least not as a big story—indeed, this weekend’s focus on the “bloodbath” comment likely stemmed more from its perceived novelty than anything else. (Trump has saluted the “J6 Prison Choir” before.) When it comes to covering Trump’s language, novelty is not a good guide to newsworthiness (especially given how often he repeats himself). It’s no surprise readers become desensitized if journalists appear to be too.

As I’ve written before, the debate over whether to carry Trump live, while important, also often rests on a false dichotomy: there are different ways of doing so. And whichever we choose, we will still, always, have to decide how to talk and write about what Trump said. Over the weekend, even otherwise sharp stories on his Ohio rally resorted to euphemisms to describe the speech as a whole—“discursive,” “headline-seizing,” “freewheeling”—that gave only a fuzzy impression of what it was actually like. If Trump’s word choices matter, so, too, do ours. 

Other notable stories:

  • For the New York Times, Jim Rutenberg and Steven Lee Myers make the case that Trump and his allies have “unquestionably prevailed” in the fight to curb disinformation about elections. After January 6, “the Biden administration, Democrats in Congress and even some Republicans sought to do more” to curb the spread of such material online, only for Trumpworld to have more success with “a counteroffensive”—“a coordinated effort to block what they viewed as a dangerous effort to censor conservatives.”
  • For the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, Evlondo Cooper and Allison Fisher surveyed how much airtime four major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting—devoted to the climate crisis last year, and found a reduction of a quarter compared with 2022. “Even at its height, climate reporting constituted barely more than 1% of total broadcast content—a figure starkly inadequate given the escalating climate crisis,” Cooper and Fisher write. For 2023, “that total is less than 1%.”
  • Yesterday, Russian President Vladimir Putin was returned to power in an election whose outcome was never in doubt amid the widespread suppression of opposition and critical media voices. (Afterward, the Times reports, Putin “took a lengthy, televised victory lap.”) Ahead of the election, the Washington Post’s Francesca Ebel noted that most Russians only encounter the war in Ukraine via state TV or social media—but that even in directly affected areas, many voters still support Putin’s “false narrative” of Russian victimhood.
  • Last week, numerous countries in Africa suffered internet outages after the submarine cables that provide their connection broke. (A provider ruled out foul play.) Speaking to The Conversation, Jess Auerbach Jahajeeah, who is writing a book about cables and connectivity, pointed out that “poorer countries often have little choice but to accept the terms and conditions of wealthy corporate entities” in this area—a potentially dangerous reality for “African digital sovereignty” that should inspire more public discussion.
  • And federal prosecutors revealed documents showing how, following the collapse of his crypto empire in 2021, Sam Bankman-Fried, until then a leading Democratic donor, mulled changing the narrative around his problems by “coming out” as an anti-woke right-winger, including by appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show. Prosecutors released the documents as Bankman-Fried is set to be sentenced following his conviction on fraud charges last year. New York’s Kevin T. Dugan has more on his “media manipulation.”

ICYMI: Young People Get Their News from TikTok. That’s a Huge Problem for Democrats.

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.