Monday, March 06, 2017

The Media's Biggest Trump Reporting Problem

One of the stranger things about writing about politics in the era of Donald Trump is that normalcy is out the window.  The President of the United States over the past weekend clearly has shown his own personal demons, lashing out at his popular predecessor with lies and attacks that are impossible to substantiate and yet he wants Congress to spend precious man-hours looking into the rantings of a conservative website that is only intent on publishing made-up crap about anyone that stands in the way of their agenda.

It is easy to see some of the clear problems with the current system, and how the media has been slow to adapt to it.  That was evidenced this weekend by an interview between ABC News' Martha Raddatz and Trump spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  In the interview, Raddatz, arguably the best news journalist on television, grilled Sanders over Trump's tweets, repeatedly pointing out that he stated that President Obama did in fact wiretap him, while Sanders only postulated that it was hypothetical and said it would be a huge scandal if it were true.  When Raddatz pointed out, correctly, that Trump said this as a fact, not as a postulation, Sanders said "you'll have to ask the president about that," a frustrating and likely (internally) expletive-inducing moment for Raddatz, since Sanders is in fact a White House spokesperson; SHE is supposed to be the equivalent of asking the president a question.  That was the same when people asked David Axelrod or Valerie Jarrett something under President Obama, or Karen Hughes or Karl Rove something under President Bush.  If you can't speak on behalf of the president, you're clearly either not willing to go on record about what he said or you're out-of-the-loop.  Either way, you're not worth the time of the news media.

This isn't a problem just for interviews with Sanders, of course.  It's become clear that people like Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway have also become surrogates who use the scapegoat of "you have to ask the president" or something equivalent to it.  That means, if that's the answer, the news media essentially only gets Trump surrogates to talk about the president when it's something they want to talk about, making the interviews largely pointless.  Unless you have an actual policy maker like Trump or Pence or one of his cabinet secretaries, someone who can speak directly about the president or national policy without backtracking (or you could get Steve Bannon, who clearly has the most power amongst West Wing staffers), there's no point to these interviews.  They are simply instruments for Trump to attempt to change the narrative.  If they're successful-great.  If not, they're just surrogates who are going to be evidence that the "mainstream media" are making people look bad.

This appears to be arguably the biggest solvable problem right now in relation to the Trump world, and it's why progressives are hounding the news media to do their jobs, and it's worth noting that in some ways they are.  You have seen a more irate CNN than you have in years, with their headlines staying truthful but more-than-willing to blast Trump in the same breath.  Journalists who tend to side toward the softball end of the news interview spectrum like Chris Wallace and Chuck Todd (at least when it comes to Republicans) have become much more aggressive against the Republicans, and print media hasn't had a heyday like this in years, with The New York Times and The Washington Post regularly trying to outdo themselves toward a very coveted Pulitzer this year (and more importantly, trying to score liberal subscription dollars), which is good for the news industry because an aggressive press is one that is unlocking the truth.

But the problem is that the media, particularly the television media, is desperate to get back to normal and that was evidenced by President Trump's address to Congress this past week.  You saw the news media have a collective orgasm over the speech, which by most standards (certainly if you compare it to the past five presidents or so) was nothing special.  This wasn't an "I still believe in a place called Hope" moment, and yet you'd think that Trump had told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down a wall.  If the best you can do to be presidential is acknowledge a crying widow, a widow whose husband died in an attack that still has a number of question marks around it and that you ordered, the bar has been set irresponsibly low.

Saying that this is presidential, that this is the start of the Trump administration even after weeks of Muslim bans and environmental de-regulation and attacks on trans students-it's appalling.  He can't sustain this, as we've seen for months now; to use paraphrase Mean Girls,"stop trying to make the pivot happen, it's not going to happen."  The collective news media is so desperate to make Trump work within the previous mold of how to handle a president that they are willing to forgive almost any transgression the second he sticks to a teleprompter.  This wouldn't have been acceptable under George W. Bush or Barack Obama; they wouldn't have let one good speech distract them from the president announcing that "three million people voted illegally in the last election."  The media needs to continue to be choosy about how they handle Trump surrogates, but stop giving him a pass if he doesn't cause a national crisis or he doesn't tweet something appalling about Meryl Streep or Arnold Schwarzenegger.  You need to hold him to the same standards you would have Hillary Clinton; failure to do so in the election is what caused this mess.  You owe it to the American people to at least give us that high-bar now.  So while making Sanders and Conway look like the fools they are on national television, and then pushing them to the sidelines so that the real journalism can take place is a start, don't congratulate Trump until he actually does something that would have garnered praise for Barack Obama.  Because if you keep lowering the bar, we're going to be in a situation where Trump doesn't have to shoot for any higher than "don't cause armageddon"...and we all know how well he does with sticking to the standards set before him.

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