“Pocahontas” won’t be lonely for long.
As other Democrats join Elizabeth Warren in the contest for the party’s presidential nomination, President Donald Trump will assign them their own nicknames, different from hers but just as derisive. There’s no doubt.
But how much heed will we in the media pay to this stupidity? Will we sprint to Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker or Mike Bloomberg for a reaction to what Trump just called one of them and then rush back to him for his response to that response? Or will we note Trump’s latest nonsense only briefly and pivot to matters more consequential?
That’s a specific question but also an overarching one – about the degree to which we’ll let him set the terms of the 2020 presidential campaign, about our appetite for antics versus substance, and about whether we’ll repeat the mistakes that we made in 2016 and continued to make during the first stages of his presidency. There were plenty.
Trump tortures us. Deliberately, yes, but I’m referring to the ways in which he keeps yanking our gaze his way. I mean the tough choices that he, more than his predecessors in the White House, forces us to make. His demand for television airtime recently was a perfect example: We had to weigh a request in line with precedent against a president out of line when it comes to truth. We had to wrestle with – and figure out when and how to resist – his talent for using us as vessels for propaganda.
We will wrestle with that repeatedly between now and November 2020, especially in the context of what may well be the most emotional and intense presidential race of our lifetimes. With the dawn of 2019 and the acceleration of potential Democratic candidates’ preparations for presidential bids, we have a chance to do things differently than we did the last time around – to redeem ourselves.
Our success or failure will affect our stature at a time of rickety public trust in us. It will raise or lower the temperature of civic discourse, which is perilously hot. Above all, it will have an impact on who takes the oath of office in January 2021. Democracies don’t just get the leaders they deserve. They get the leaders who make it through whatever obstacle course – and thrive in whatever atmosphere – their media has created.
“The shadow of what we did last time looms over this next time,” former CBS newsman Dan Rather, who has covered more than half a century of presidential elections, told me. And what we did last time was emphasize the sound and the fury, because Trump provided both in lavish measure.
“When you cover this as spectacle,” Rather said, “what’s lost is context, perspective and depth. And when you cover this as spectacle, he is the star.” Spectacle is his métier. He’s indisputably spectacular. And even if it’s a ghastly spectacle and presented that way, it still lets him control the narrative. As writer Steve Almond observed in a recently published essay, “He appears powerful to his followers, which is central to his strongman mystique.”
Trump was and is a perverse gift to the mainstream, establishment media, a magnet for eyeballs at a juncture when we were struggling economically and desperately needed one. Just present him as the high-wire act and car crash that he is; the audience gorges on it. But readers’ news appetite isn’t infinite, so they’re starved of information about the fraudulence of his supposed populism and the toll of his incompetence. And he wins. He doesn’t hate the media, not at all. He uses us.
Did that dynamic help elect him? There’s no definitive answer. But we gave him an extraordinary bounty of coverage, depriving his rivals of commensurate oxygen and agency. And while our coverage of him had turned overwhelmingly negative by the final months of the 2016 campaign, it by no means started out that way.
Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has been analyzing that coverage since Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2015. Patterson found that for much of that year, the number of stories about Trump in the country’s most influential newspapers and on its principal newscasts significantly exceeded what his support in polls at the time justified.
And those stories were predominantly positive. “The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls,” Patterson wrote in one of his reports about the election. In stark contrast, stories about Hillary Clinton in 2015 were mostly negative.
Through the first half of 2016, as Trump racked up victories in the Republican primaries, he commanded much more coverage than any other candidate from either party, and it was evenly balanced between positive and negative appraisals – unlike the coverage of Clinton, which remained mostly negative.
Only during their general-election faceoff did Trump and Clinton confront equivalent tides of naysaying. “On topics relating to the candidates’ fitness for office, Clinton and Trump’s coverage was virtually identical in terms of its negative tone,” Patterson wrote.
Regarding their fitness for office, they were treated identically? In retrospect, that’s madness. It should have been in real time, too.
But we fell prey to a habit that can’t be repeated when we compare the new crop of Democratic challengers to Trump and to one another. We interpreted fairness as a similarly apportioned mix of complimentary and derogatory stories, no matter how different one contender’s qualifications, accomplishments and liabilities were from another’s. If we were going to pile on Trump, we had to pile on Clinton – or, rather, keep piling on her.
“It was wall-to-wall emails,” said Jill Abramson, former executive editor of The New York Times and author of a book about the media, “Merchants of Truth,” that will be published next month. She was referring to the questions and complaints about Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. “When you compare that to the wrongdoing that has been exposed so far by Robert Mueller,” Abramson told me, “it seems like a small thing.” The considerable muck in Clinton’s background never did, and never could, match the mountain of muck in Trump’s.
Abramson, who had left The Times and was writing a column for The Guardian during the 2016 campaign, maintains that Trump also benefited from the media’s excessive faith in polls and its insufficient grasp of what was happening among Americans between the coasts. “The basic flaw of the press coverage, and I count myself in it, was the total assumption that Hillary would win,” she said. “The firepower of the investigative spotlight turned on Trump was a little bit less because no one thought he would be the president, and that was a grave mistake.”
I’m not certain that more firepower would have made a difference. For one thing, there were many exposés of Trump’s shady history. For another, he appealed to voters who largely disregard the mainstream media and who thrilled to his exhortations that they disregard it further. And many of those voters were embracing disruption or rejecting Clinton; the tally of Trump’s sins had little bearing on that. Regardless, he won’t get any pass along those lines in 2020. There are formal investigations galore into his behavior. The media needs only to track them – and is doing so, raptly.
We need to do something else, too, which is to recognize that Trump now has an actual record in office and to discuss that with as much energy as we do his damned Twitter feed.
By the time the 2020 election kicks into highest gear, Trump will have been president for more than three years, barring his impeachment, his resignation or his spontaneous combustion (with him, you never know). We’ll have evidence aplenty to demonstrate that he’s ineffective and incompetent, an approach more likely to have traction than telling voters that he’s outrageous. They already know that.
We just have to wean ourselves from his Twitter expectorations, which are such easy, entertaining fuel for talking heads. I’ve certainly been powered by that fuel, in print and on television, myself.
“You know what would be great?” said Amanda Carpenter, who worked as a communications adviser and speechwriter for Ted Cruz and wrote the 2018 book, “Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us.” “Instead of covering Trump’s tweets on a live, breaking basis, just cover them in the last five minutes of a news show. They’re presidential statements, but we can balance them.”
We can also allow his challengers to talk about themselves as much as they do about him. In 2016, Carpenter said, that didn’t happen. “It was deeply unfair,” she told me. “When the whole news cycle was microphones shoved in Republican candidates’ faces and the question was always, ‘What’s your reaction to what Trump just said?,’ there’s no way to drive your own message.”
And when journalists gawp at each of Trump’s tirades, taunts and self-congratulatory hallucinations, these heresies blur together and he evades accountability for the ones that should stick. I asked Rather what he was most struck by in the 2016 campaign, and he instantly mentioned Trump’s horrific implication, in public remarks that August, that gun enthusiasts could rid themselves of a Clinton presidency by assassinating her.
I’d almost forgotten it. So many lesser shocks so quickly overwrote it. Rather wasn’t surprised. “It got to the point where it was one outrage after another, and we just moved on each time,” he said. Instead, we should hold on to the most unconscionable moments. We can’t privilege the incremental over what should be the enduring. It lets Trump off the hook.
So does anything, really, that tugs us from issues of policy and governance into the realms of theater and sport. That puts a greater premium than ever on avoiding what Joel Benenson called “the horse-race obsession” with who’s ahead, who’s behind, who seems to be breaking into a gallop, who’s showing signs of a limp.
Benenson was the chief strategist and pollster for Clinton’s campaign, and he told me: “Cable networks have figured out that the most interesting television of the week is the National Football League pregame show, and that if you put enough experts on arguing about something that hasn’t happened yet, people will watch. And that’s what we’re doing with our politics. The media is not using their strength, their franchise, to elevate and illuminate the conversation. They’re just getting you all jazzed up about the game.”
That carried over into Trump’s presidency itself. To wit: Pew analyzed over 3,000 stories from 24 news organizations during his first four months in office to determine what the media gave the most coverage to. It wasn’t any legislative proposal or executive action such as the ban on travel into the United States from largely Muslim countries. It was his “political skills.”
I think that we’ve improved since then, and all along our efforts have included significant in-depth reporting. The Times’ acquisition and exhaustive analysis of confidential financial records of Trump’s from the 1990s – and its conclusion, in an epic story published in October, that he used questionable schemes to build his wealth – is a sterling example.
But the lure of less demanding labors (“Trump Calls Former Aide a Three-Toed Sloth Minus the Vigor!”) is always there, especially because readers and viewers, no matter how much they complain about the media’s shallowness, reward it. What they lap up most readily and reliably is Trump the Baby at the top of the newscast, Trump the Buffoon in the highlights reel, Trump the Bully in the headline. And that’s on them.
But it’s on us to try to interest them in more and to leaven that concentration of attention with full, vivid introductions to Trump’s alternatives. Dozens of Democrats are poised to volunteer for that role, and when we in the media observe – as I myself have done – that they must possess the requisite vividness to steal some of his spotlight, we’re talking as much about our own prejudices and shortcomings as anything else. We can direct that spotlight where we want. It needn’t always fall on the politician juggling swords or doing back flips.
It’s on us to quit staging “likability” sweepstakes – a prize more often withheld from female politicians than from male ones. We should buck commercial considerations to the extent that we can and give the candidates’ competing visions of government as much scrutiny as their competing talents for quips or proneness to gaffes. Every four years we say we’ll devote more energy and space to policy and every four years we don’t. But in an environment this polarized and shrill, and at a crossroads this consequential, following through on that vow is more important than ever.
It’s on us not to surrender to tired taxonomies that echo Trump’s divisiveness. Black voters, white voters, urban voters and rural voters aren’t driven solely by those designations, and America’s soul doesn’t belong exclusively to former factory workers in the Rust Belt.
“Their voices deserve to be heard, but so do the minority voices in urban America,” Rather said. “I think we can do a better job as journalists not to overuse the phrase ‘average American,’ and also to expand the definition of it.”
The real story of Trump isn’t his amorality and outrageousness. It’s Americans’ receptiveness to that. It’s the fact that, according to polls, most voters deemed him dishonest and indecent, yet plenty of them cast their ballots for him anyway.
“Trump basically ran on blowing the whole thing up,” said Nancy Gibbs, who was the top editor at Time magazine from 2013 to 2017. “So what was it that the country wanted? It’s critically important that we find ways to get at what it is people imagine government should be doing and that we really look at what kind of leadership we need.”
Nicknames have nothing to do with it. So let’s not have much to do with them.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.