If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto

I believed in traditional reporting, but Trump changed me — and it should change the rest of the media too.

(David Szauder for The Washington Post)
(David Szauder for The Washington Post)

Despite my nearly four decades in journalism, I was unprepared for the moment of no return that came on a July day in 2016, as a blazing sun beat down on the streets of Cleveland. Walking around the grounds of the Republican National Convention, I was looking for a column idea. I was new at this, having started at The Washington Post only a few weeks earlier. Wandering and observing, I came upon a table of souvenirs, meant to appeal to the convention attendees who had arrived from all corners of the nation to cheer on the Republican Party’s nomination of Donald Trump. I already had seen some gleefully misogynistic anti-Clinton paraphernalia — “Hillary sucks but not like Monica” — but nothing measured up to the horror I felt as I registered the meaning of a T-shirt featuring the image of a noose and these words: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

Over the weeks and months ahead, as I started to write what I hoped were well-reasoned Post columns about Trump’s relationship with the media, I felt an irrational anger coming at me like an unending blast from an industrial-strength hose. Trump hadn’t invented this anger, of course, but he certainly emboldened it — and used it for his own purposes. On social media, in phone messages, in emails I received, the sheer hatred from Trump supporters shocked and even frightened me. One, unsigned but from a “lifetime member of the NRA,” asserted that people like me wouldn’t be around much longer. Another, signed “A Real, True Patriot,” read:

“Though I would never read a manure-laden pile of toilet paper like Washington Compost, I heard about your Nazi column about ‘reaching the masses’ with your fake news to convince people that your leftist Nazi lies are truth. You are a well-trained serpent of the left, following communist orders as you were taught. ‘If you say and repeat a lie often enough, it will eventually be seen as truth’ — Lenin … Here’s what you (slithering, fake-news/propaganda- generating slimy slug) should do: Go fornicate yourself with a large, sharp knife, and then eat rat poison until your belly is stuffed.”

I was called the c-word repeatedly. One reader suggested I have my breasts cut off. I tried to let all this nastiness roll off my back and even found it amusing when a Post reader sent me an email calling me a “venomous serpent.” John Schwartz, then a reporter for the New York Times who had become a friend, suggested I treat it as a badge of honor and write a book titled “Memories of a Venomous Serpent.”

Now, six years later, we journalists know a lot more about covering Trump and his supporters. We’ve come a long way, but certainly made plenty of mistakes. Too many times, we acted as his stenographers or megaphones. Too often, we failed to refer to his many falsehoods as lies. It took too long to stop believing that, whenever he calmed down for a moment, he was becoming “presidential.” And it took too long to moderate our instinct to give equal weight to both sides, even when one side was using misinformation for political gain.

It’s been an education for all of us — a gradual realization that the instincts and conventions of traditional journalism weren’t good enough for this moment in our country’s history. As Trump prepares to run again in 2024, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the lessons we’ve learned — and committing to the principle that, when covering politicians who are essentially running against democracy, old-style journalism will no longer suffice.

Back in 2016, I was still looking for common ground with the Trump crowd. It fit with my background as a traditional newspaper journalist. During nearly 13 years as chief editor of the Buffalo News, ending in 2012, I had believed that I could listen to or communicate with our readers, whatever their politics — and I was registered to vote as a “blank.” Our editorial board, which I sat on, endorsed candidates from various parties, and I had courteous relationships with officeholders of all stripes. I frequently would go out to speak to civic organizations, such as rotary clubs, in the Buffalo-Niagara region with no regard for whether their members leaned right or left.

At the Cleveland airport after the convention, I interviewed one delegate, a concierge for a car dealership named Mary Sue McCarty, who wore a cowboy hat and pearls as she waited for her flight home to Dallas. She had her mind made up about the news media: “Journalists aren’t doing their jobs. They are protecting a certain class.” When I pointed out that it was the New York Times that broke the consequential story about Hillary Clinton’s email practices and that mainstream media organizations had aggressively investigated the finances of the Clinton Foundation, she shrugged: “If it’s a Republican, it’s investigated to death. If it’s a Democrat, it’s breezed over.”

This assertion could hardly have been more wrong. After all, the media’s endless emphasis on Clinton’s emails would prove to be a big factor in dooming her campaign. It simply wasn’t the case that the press was giving Democrats a pass.

Clearly, the empirical common ground I depended upon — and believed in — was eroding. Dealing with that growing reality over the next few years would change me as a journalist and even as a person. Some principles and beliefs, I found, were more important than appearing to get along with everyone or responding to criticism by offering to compromise or change course. Journalists have to stand, unwaveringly, for the truth — and if that meant being attacked by zealots who wanted to call such a position evidence of bias, I could live with that. For me, it would soon become a matter of simple integrity to acknowledge that some of the old-school rules and practices didn’t work anymore.

From this new vantage point, it seemed self-evident that the mainstream press was too often going easy on Trump. Well into his presidency, journalists didn’t want to use the word “lie” for Trump’s constant barrage of falsehoods. To lie, editors reasoned, means to intend to be untruthful. Since journalists couldn’t be inside politicians’ heads, how were we supposed to know if — by this definition — they were really lying? The logic eventually became strained, given that Trump blithely repeated the same rank mistruths over and over.

Too many reporters and their editors didn’t seem to want to figure out how to cover Trump properly. From the moment he descended the golden escalator at Manhattan’s Trump Tower in June 2015 to announce his candidacy, the news media was in his thrall. Journalists couldn’t stop writing about him, showing him on TV and even broadcasting images of the empty stage waiting for him to arrive at a rally. Trump had described himself as “the ratings machine,” and for once he wasn’t exaggerating.

As I continued to tackle the 2016 campaign, I criticized the press’s obsession with the former reality-TV star, yet I was caught up in it, too. I have no regrets about what I wrote, but I certainly was aware that if I wrote a column with Trump’s name in the headline, it probably would find a passionate audience: thousands of comments and retweets, hundreds of emails, requests to talk on TV. And because I wrote about the news media, and Trump never stopped using the news media as a foil, there was so much to say.

In every way, Trump was a deeply abnormal candidate, but the news media couldn’t seem to communicate that effectively or even grasp the problem. Instead, his every unhinged, middle-of-the-night tweet was covered like legitimate news. To be fair, the media was applying a standard that had made sense up until that moment: When a major presidential candidate says something provocative or worse, it’s newsworthy. The problem is that we were applying this old standard to a candidate who was exploiting it for his own purposes — while seeking to undermine democracy itself.

In the late afternoon of Nov. 8, 2016, Election Day, I walked into The Post’s newsroom with a column already started about Hillary Clinton’s supposedly inevitable victory. A few hours later, I was scrambling, just like every reporter, editor and commentator. My colleagues and I watched the television screens placed all around the newsroom as one battleground state after another fell to Trump.

Tossing away my useless column, I wrote that the media coverage of the 2016 race had been, as I put it, “an epic fail.” They — and I would include myself in this criticism — employed a kind of magical thinking: A Trump presidency shouldn’t happen, therefore it won’t happen.

Soon, word filtered down from the boss, Marty Baron, that I should produce a second column before I left the newsroom that night. He wanted me to write my recommendations for how the traditional press should cover the new president. So, I wrote a call to arms for American journalists: “Journalists are going to have to be better — stronger, more courageous, stiffer-spined — than they’ve ever been.” I filed it, not at all convinced that I’d written anything worthwhile on this momentous night, said good night to my editor and headed out of the newsroom around 3 a.m.

Stunned and spent, I walked slowly through the deserted streets of downtown Washington. As I neared my apartment, I could see the U.S. Capitol, that seemingly inviolable symbol of American democracy, off to the east. Lit from within, it glowed an ethereal white in the darkness.

In every way, Trump was a deeply abnormal candidate, but the news media couldn’t seem to communicate that effectively or even grasp the problem.

As we would learn over the coming years, the Capitol was not inviolable, and neither is the democracy it represents. American democracy is now on the edge of a precipice. What can members of the press do to help keep it from tipping over as the 2024 campaign looms? What should we have learned since that summer in 2016?

For one thing, I’m convinced that journalists — specifically those who cover politics — must keep a sharp focus on truth-seeking, not old-style performative neutrality. Does that mean we throw objectivity out the window? Of course not. We should be resolutely objective in the sense of seeking evidence and approaching subjects with an open mind. We should not, however, resort to taking everything down the middle, no matter what. Rather than, for example, having equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats (or conservatives and progressives) on every talk show, or devoting equal numbers of words to each side of a political argument, we should be thinking about what coverage serves the public best.

Those who deny the outcome of the 2020 election certainly don’t deserve a media megaphone for that enduring lie, one that is likely to reemerge in the presidential campaign ahead. But the media should go one step further: When covering such a politician in other contexts — for example, about abortion rights or gun control — journalists should remind audiences that this public figure is an election denier.

That’s exactly the model pursued by WITF, a public radio station in Harrisburg, Pa., which decided to remind its audience on a regular basis that some Republican state legislators and members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation had opposed the transfer of power to Joe Biden, despite the lack of evidence to support their claims of election fraud. A story on the station’s website about a state legislator’s efforts to get Pennsylvanians vaccinated was accompanied by a sidebar of text about his behavior after the election. On-air stories have used a tagline to accomplish the same purpose. The decision wasn’t easy, one editor told me, “because this is not the normal thing.”

Unfortunately, many media organizations — increasingly owned these days by huge corporations or hedge funds — seem more interested in ratings and profits than in serving the public interest. So, they are extremely hesitant to offend groups of viewers or voters, including the many Republicans who have signed on to the lie about the 2020 election being stolen. The new boss of CNN, Chris Licht, raised eyebrows when he made the rounds on Capitol Hill a few months ago to assure Republican leaders that members of their party would be treated fairly on the network that had been one of the former president’s favorite punching bags. One conservative publication, the Washington Free Beacon, called Licht’s unusual outreach an “apology tour.” Given all this, it’s difficult to picture CNN consistently alerting viewers that a politician is an election denier, even when discussing a different subject. Yet that’s exactly the type of bold measure that is needed.

Media people — not just reporters but their editors and top leaders of newsrooms — also need to take a hard, critical look at the types of stories that constitute traditional campaign coverage. That coverage has historically leaned on such things as live footage of speeches, rallies and debates; on “horse race” articles based on polls or conventional wisdom; and on blowing up small conflicts (campaign staff in disarray!) into major stories. These modes of coverage can have the effect of normalizing a candidate who should not be normalized. They also often constitute a distraction at a time when huge swaths of one party are essentially running against democratic practices.

By no means am I counseling that journalists act as if they are “on the team” of Trump’s rivals. That’s not our job. At the same time, we have to be aware that covering someone who doesn’t care about democratic norms — even something as basic as the peaceful transfer of power — requires different judgments about what stories really matter, and how we should or should not cover them.

In making these judgments, we have to relentlessly explain ourselves to our readers, viewers and listeners. Although it didn’t involve Trump, a good example of this came over the summer when the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland decided against covering a rally for U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis because of the absurdly restrictive rules the campaign had tried to impose, including a prohibition against interviewing attendees who weren’t approved by rally organizers. Instead, the Plain Dealer published white space, with a note to readers written by editor Chris Quinn headlined, “We reject the free speech-trampling rules set by J.D. Vance and Ron DeSantis for covering their rally.” Quinn was blunt: “Think about what they were doing here. They were staging an event to rally people to vote for Vance while instituting the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime.”

Of course, the press must be just as tough on Democrats, should they adopt similar tactics or start lying all the time or trashing governmental norms. The standards should be the same for all. But journalists shouldn’t shy away from the unavoidable truth: Most of this is coming from Trump-style Republicans.

Perhaps the most important thing journalists can do as they cover the campaign ahead is to provide thoughtful framing and context. They shouldn’t just repeat what’s being said, but help explain what it means. This is especially important in headlines and news alerts, which are about as far as many news consumers get. When Trump rants about the supposed horrors of rigged elections and voting fraud, journalists have to constantly provide the counterweight of truth. We have gotten better at this since 2016. Now we have to stick to it.

All of these suggestions go against the grain of traditional politics coverage. Undoubtedly, this approach will draw accusations of bias from the right; undoubtedly, journalists and news leaders will be put on the defensive. They’ll need to get over that. The stakes are enormously high. Doing things the same old way isn’t remotely appropriate. By now, that’s something we all should have learned.

Margaret Sullivan was The Post’s media columnist from 2016 until late August. This article is adapted from her memoir, “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life,” to be published this month by St. Martin’s Press.

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