The Media Today

Covering Trump’s brutal photo op, and new lows that aren’t new anymore

June 3, 2020

Last summer, a gunman murdered 23 people, the vast majority of them Hispanic, at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas—one of two mass shootings in America in the space of a few hours. Afterward, Trump gave a speech at the White House preaching “unity, devotion, and love.” The speech was obviously antithetical to the divisive premise of Trump’s political rise; the El Paso shooter had even channeled the president’s anti-Hispanic rhetoric in a violent screed that he posted online prior to his rampage. Despite such context, the New York Times granted Trump a front-page headline—“Trump urges unity v. racism”—that was breathtakingly credulous. Media Twitter was furious; so, reportedly, were many Times staffers. The headline was changed in time for the second edition. Dean Baquet, the paper’s top editor, later conceded, to staff, that it had been a “fucking mess.”

Also last summer, Trump fired off a tweet telling four Democratic Congresswomen of color—all but one of whom (Rep. Ilhan Omar) was born in the US—to “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Many reporters, including at the Times, tied themselves in knots to avoid calling the tweet “racist,” even though it clearly was. (One Times headline said Trump had “fanned the flames of a racial fire.”) Later in the week, Trump held a rally in North Carolina, and stood silent, for 13 seconds, as his supporters chanted, of Omar, “Send her back!” Afterward, HuffPost ran a headline—“A fascist Trump rally in Greenville”—that was much braver than anything the Times mustered. Christopher Mathias, who covers the far right for HuffPost, brought reporting to back up his use of the f-word, including interviews with scholars of fascism.

Related: The police abuse the press. Again.

On Monday, with protests against racism and police brutality spreading across the US, police violently cleaved a path through peaceful demonstrators outside the White House so that Trump, who had just threatened to deploy the military domestically, could walk to a church for a photo op with a Bible. The episode inspired a lame print headline in the Times—“As chaos spreads, Trump vows to ‘end it now’”—which was met by online fury and a later-edition headline change. It also inspired a bold headline in HuffPost: “FASCIST PHOTO OP.” (Mathias—who was arrested by New York police officers over the weekend while covering protests in the cityshared the splash on Twitter, with a dig at the Times.)

In ways large and small, it felt like history had simultaneously repeated itself, and plumbed some frightening new depth. Yesterday, we learned new details about how the photo op came about. The Washington Post reported that Trump decided to go to the church in response to cable-news coverage that he felt made him look weak—“It was just to win the news cycle,” one unnamed adviser said—and that William Barr, the attorney general, had personally ordered law enforcement to clear the protesters out of the president’s way. Also yesterday, the US Park Police, which carried out Barr’s command, pushed back on widespread reports that it had fired tear gas at the protesters, claiming that it had only used “pepper balls” and “smoke canisters” (phew!). Trump’s reelection campaign demanded that news outlets retract their tear-gas claim, even though, as many observers pointed out, the police did indeed use tear gas, according to the Trump administration’s own definition of the term. (James Poniewozik, of the Times, accused Trump of “teargaslighting.”) Last night, as protests continued, combat-clad members of the DC National Guard amassed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The image quickly went viral.

As all this was happening, references to authoritarianism rang through the news cycle. Some notable voices spoke out: Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in The Atlantic that he could no longer stay silent on Trump’s conduct; Brendan Buck, a prominent Republican operative, told the Post that the photo op was “a true abuse of power” that should not be erased from mind by the “next outrage.” In a Twitter thread that went viral, NBC’s Kasie Hunt listed the reactions of Republican senators who, predictably, did not speak out. (Sen. Rob Portman: “I’m late for lunch.”) In light of events, The Atlantic pressed publish early on its next cover story, in which the writer Anne Applebaum compares senior Republicans to collaborators in Vichy France and communist East Germany; this, too, was shared widely online. Observers in other countries expressed concern for the US in terms that observers in the US like to think are reserved for their concern for other countries. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, was literally speechless; the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel said Trump is “playing dictator.” Ishaan Tharoor, of the Post, asked, in his foreign-affairs column, whether it’s time “to call Trump the f-word.” Headlines in other outlets used the f-word outright. Dan Froomkin, a prolific critic of mainstream-media bothsidesism, noted a welcome change of tone in coverage; Trump’s photo op, he wrote, had “pierced the detachment of even the most jaded journalists.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Not everyone agreed with Froomkin, though. Writing in The Nation, Elie Mystal accused mainstream outlets of “scrambling” to find legal justification for Trump’s threats to deploy the military—“It’s like we’re being robbed at gunpoint and we’re trying to haggle over how much money we owe the mugger”—and noted that right-wing outlets have slavishly boosted the president’s recent behavior. Some coverage of the photo op was, indeed, marked by familiar mistakes, including inadequate language (Chuck Todd referred to it, at one point, as “controversial”), allowing at least one “senior White House official” to anonymously launder their regret, and, yes, the Times’s headline. By last night, the outrage that marked Monday’s coverage on CNN and MSNBC was still palpable, but was more diluted. Again, it felt like we were back in a familiar place.

Maddeningly, all the above impressions can be true at once. The Trump era has served up a quickfire procession of fresh new lows, making the act of responding to each new low feel anything but new. Each new low demands to be covered with an unerring spotlight, but as the new lows pile up, the spotlight necessarily has to widen, to a point where it’s no longer adequately illuminating. Media coverage of Trump is often deeply flawed—but its channeling of such intense contradictions is surely, to some extent, unavoidable. We can’t focus on one thing and everything all at once.

One approach we haven’t yet fully pursued could be to try and make our coverage less reactive—rather than be surprised by each new low, we could anticipate where future ones might come, and prepare news consumers for how they might think about them. Yesterday, for example, prominent commentators—including Jelani Cobb, of the New Yorker, and Mehdi Hasan, of The Intercept—wrote on Twitter that there’s a very real risk that Trump will simply refuse to leave office should he lose in November.

Sound absurd? So, once, did President Donald Trump preaching “unity, devotion, and love,” “a fascist Trump rally in Greenville,” and the president of the United States turning armed police on protesters as a publicity stunt. We’ve been warned enough.

Below, more on Trump and the protests:

Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The mystery of Tucker Carlson

Update: This piece has been updated to correct details 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.