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 city—shared 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.”
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:
- Tracking press-freedom violations: On Monday, Amelia Brace and Tim Myers, of the Australian channel 7News, were broadcasting live from DC when police officers assaulted them, respectively, with a baton and a riot shield. Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, demanded an investigation into the episode. As of last night, the US Press Freedom Tracker had logged 211 press-freedom violations linked to the protests, including 143 assaults, the vast majority committed by police. Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, writes for CJR that “if journalists and media organizations want to confront the violence, they are going to have to engage with police departments across the country.”
- Tracking curfews: As the protests have escalated, cities across the country have imposed curfews, and haven’t always exempted news organizations from abiding by them. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a map showing the different curfew policies by area.
- “A sea of blue ink”: Margaret Sullivan, a media writer at the Post, explores why many local papers owned by Gannett splashed “Rebuilding America”—a “business-friendly collaboration between its newsrooms and ad departments”—on their Sunday front pages, rather than the protests. “If local newspapers are going to survive—a very real question—they do need to fix their bottom-line problems,” Sullivan writes. “But they also need to hold fast to their basic mission.”
- COVID coverage: Sara Fischer, Neal Rothschild, and Bryan Walsh, of Axios, crunched the numbers and found that coverage of the protests has dwarfed coverage of the pandemic in recent days. “On Sunday, around 2.5 percent of the combined airtime of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News mentioned the coronavirus,” Axios reports, “while around 25 percent of the airtime mentioned the Floyd protests or related words.”
Other notable stories:
- This week, the organizers of the 2020 US Census reported reaching their target response rate of 60.5 percent of households. From August, counters will visit any remaining, unresponsive households. In other despite-the-pandemic news, eight states and Washington, DC, held primaries yesterday; the most notable result came in Iowa, where Steve King, the far-right Republican Congressman, lost his seat to challenger Randy Feenstra, a state senator. And Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general (remember him?), will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee today—part of the Republican-led panel’s investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.
- In media-business news, Civil—the blockchain-backed effort to build an ecosystem for independent journalism—is shutting down. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has a postmortem. Shamrock Capital, a private-equity firm, is buying Adweek from Beringer Capital, also a private-equity firm. And Grist, a news site focused on environmental justice, has taken over the assets of Pacific Standard, a nonprofit magazine that shuttered last year. According to Fischer, of Axios, Grist will ensure that Pacific Standard’s archives remain publicly and freely available, and is looking at relaunching the magazine’s brand.
- For CJR, the veteran reality-TV producer Mark Cronin explains Trump as a creation of the genre, and how media coverage echoes its “stories, arcs, characters, stakes, and feuds.” The media “has become, itself, the medium through which Trump delivers his reality TV, shock jock, feud-based entertainment,” Cronin writes. “The press, meanwhile, benefits from a huge bump in audience. It’s a win-win. Right?”
- Last week, Trump signed an executive order aimed at undermining social-media firms’ liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—but three weeks earlier, his Justice Department asked a court to uphold the same law in a case pitting LGBTQ content creators against YouTube, Bloomberg’s Malathi Nayak reports. The creators say YouTube censored them. YouTube says that it’s immune from the suit.
- An investigation by the Associated Press found that China dragged its feet on releasing crucial information about the coronavirus in January—even as the World Health Organization publicly praised the country for its cooperation. The Chinese and US governments have pushed competing accounts of the early days of the pandemic. The AP reports that information that it reviewed supports neither side’s preferred narrative.
- And Audrey Cooper is stepping down as editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle after five years in the role. The paper reports that Cooper will quit her post later this month to take an unspecified “new position in journalism.”
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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.