How do you cover a president who has become a parody of himself?
During the past few years, journalists learned that some long-held assumptions about White House reporting had to be put to rest.
There was, for example, no such thing as a weekend under President Trump. (In that distant time, barring unforeseen disasters, news would slow to a crawl.)
Regular White House press briefings deteriorated, dwindled, then died off. (The last one was more than 160 days ago, replaced by Trump’s impromptu and falsehood-ridden, “chopper talk” outside Marine One.)
And this past week, we learned that there’s no such thing anymore as the dog days of summer.
Rather than a break when, with Congress out of session, government officials — even presidents — went on vacation to be blessedly silent, we had a superpowered news cycle of one eye-popping development after another.
The briefest of refreshers:
President Trump was angry that his desire to buy Greenland was rebuffed. He embraced the notion that he was “king of Israel” and called himself “the chosen one.” He backed off his previously expressed interest in gun-control reforms. And his administration proposed a new immigration policy that could indefinitely detain migrant families who enter the country illegally.
Whipsawed and overwhelmed, the national media found it justifiably challenging to do the part of their job that involves prioritizing and curating the news — that is, making sense of what was going on.
Columnist Michelle Goldberg tweeted this pithy comment after perusing her own paper’s home page: “The front page of the NYT right now looks like one of those pre-election parodies about what a Trump administration would be like.” Among the headlines were “N.R.A. Gets Results in One Phone Call With the President” and “Trump Accuses Jewish Democrats of ‘Disloyalty,’ Inciting Fierce Backlash” and a couple of others on Greenland and the new regulation that would let the United States hold migrant families indefinitely.
The Greenland story was especially bizarre, and headlines (“Trump postpones Denmark trip after prime minister declines to sell him Greenland”) brought online cracks like this from Columbia University journalism professor William Grueskin: “I give up,” says every editor at The Onion.
There is, of course, no perfect answer to how to cover this madness. Some like to suggest that the distractions be all but ignored — that the press should focus only on the policy.
But that’s not right either, because their extreme nature speaks volumes about the suitability — and maybe the mental stability — of the president of the United States.
“These are episodes of what would be called outright lunacy, if they occurred in any other setting,” wrote James Fallows in the Atlantic.
Amid all this, it was heartening to read some sensible media criticism from an unaccustomed source: a candidate for president.
In an interview with Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed News, Texas Democrat Julián Castro offered this perspective:
“In some ways, journalism in the Trump era is more challenging than ever. But it’s especially important to stay focused on newsworthiness and not to let a fascination with oddity, or simple timeliness, overtake news judgment about what’s important for readers,” he wrote. (The interview was by text message, complete with a requested selfie and emoji.)
“The fact that the president just went back on his word to do universal background checks should be front page — and these other moves by Trump are likely designed to distract from that.”
He’s right. (And he’s also correct in his analysis of “both sides” journalistic failings by some news organizations who strive for neutrality rather than fairness and truth.)
That prescription sounds easy enough in theory. In practice, when so much from Trump is happening at the same time, news organizations run the risk of looking like they are obsessed with him — or as if they are setting out to attack him.
Even as Trump bedazzles the news media, he blames it — one of his favorite ploys, along with distraction and dissembling.
“LameStream Media is doing everything possible the ‘create’ a U.S. recession, even though the numbers & facts are working totally in the opposite direction,” he charged in a Wednesday tweet.
Many consumers, like my friend Alexandra who lives in Norfolk, are fed up with following the news.
“I’m considering tuning out again,” she told me the other day by phone as the Trump news mounted and the burning of the Amazon rainforest blazed on. “This is spiritually debilitating.”
That’s an understandable temptation. And, in truth, a news break (until Labor Day?) might not hurt.
But in general, citizens and the press both need to stay vigilant.
And to remember that what seems absurd can be consequential. And that what gets shunted aside, in favor of the latest shiny object, might be the most important of all.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.