When incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer wakes up in the morning, he immediately checks Twitter to see what President-elect Donald Trump might have tweeted overnight.
“I do look there first, because that’s what’s going to drive the news,” Spicer said Wednesday evening at the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics. “I mean, whatever he tweets is going to drive the news.”
Spicer went on to say that Trump is well aware of the agenda-setting power of his digital missives.
“I think there’s this misconception, or there’s this implication, that he’s just randomly tweeting,” Spicer said during a panel discussion with David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to President Obama, and Robert Gibbs, a former White House press secretary under Obama. “He knows exactly where he wants to end up on a particular subject. … He understands the strategic value in certain actions to achieve a goal.”
In other words, according to his spokesman, Trump knows exactly what he is doing when he shares a 140-character thought bubble. But the media seem less sure of how to respond.
The Fix’s Aaron Blake argued in November that the media can’t — and shouldn’t — ignore Trump’s tweets, even if covering them feels like playing into his hand.
This is the president-elect of the United States. The job comes with the so-called bully pulpit, and what he says matters and will be the subject of debate no matter what the mainstream media does. Everything he says reverberates. It doesn’t matter if he says it on Twitter or at a news conference; either way it’s going to be consumed by tens of millions of people, and the media has an important role to play when it comes to fact-checking and providing context.
I’d add that a blackout of Trump tweets also could be considered playing into his hand, since it would aid his effort to cast the media as an oppositional force.
But some journalists are frustrated by the billionaire’s attempts to direct their reporting — and are questioning whether they ought to let him do it. On Wednesday, before Spicer made his remarks at the University of Chicago, New York Times reporter Eric Lipton launched a debate among journalists — which played out on Twitter, naturally — when he wondered why the media allow Trump to “own the day.”
Trump sets agenda every morning with exaggerated/false/destabilizing Tweets, and then we all write about them, letting him own the day. Why?
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) January 4, 2017
Probably because he is the next president of the United States. https://t.co/3k3cGLN5ej
— Blake Hounshell (@blakehounshell) January 4, 2017
He's about to be president. We owe it to our readers to explain what he's saying, whether it's true, and why it matters. Unavoidable. https://t.co/GDhjWWyO0u
— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) January 4, 2017
Lots of reporters & TV anchors privately asking this same question. True in November and December too, but I'm hearing it more in January https://t.co/VzCLwaOVPs
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 4, 2017
Some day soon, reporters are going to wise up and treat Trump's tweets like WH press releases. Ignoring 99% of them, in other words.
— Noah Shachtman (@NoahShachtman) January 4, 2017
Counterargument: if Obama issued press releases saying what Trump says on Twitter, reporters would cover the heck out of the press releases! https://t.co/NKaDCPDjj1
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) January 4, 2017
Maybe because he's the president-elect and what he says therefore matters. Just a thought. https://t.co/ep6Bo3Iezf
— Rachel Stoltzfoos (@RachelStoltz) January 4, 2017
Tweet stenography is a cheaper and more reliable source of clicks than original reporting. https://t.co/MU6zI6rpZH
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) January 4, 2017
Well put. We can't ignore them, but we're very much in the wrong place on the spectrum now. https://t.co/ZRfbpohVFb
— David Leonhardt (@DLeonhardt) January 4, 2017
Precisely, precisely, precisely. Can we stop now? --> https://t.co/EESngTPM1O
— David S. Joachim (@davidjoachim) January 4, 2017
1. Too many in media fall for it
2. It reinforces his base
3. It worked beautifully in election
4. He pays no real price (yet) https://t.co/Pgqj1dhhtn
— Yael T. Abouhalkah (@YaelTAbouhalkah) January 4, 2017
— Robbie Whelan (@RWhelanWSJ) January 4, 2017
Because statements by the incoming president are ipso facto newsworthy and important regardless of medium? https://t.co/9yaiAlBNHp
— Lachlan Markay (@lachlan) January 4, 2017
Because it is and must remain newsworthy that the president-elect is posting exaggerated/false/destabilizing Tweets. Just report it that way https://t.co/QSlnJZZ3xI
— Jay Bookman AJC (@jaybookmanajc) January 4, 2017
Clearly there is no consensus on how to handle — or how to be handled by — Trump’s tweets. Some journalists want to stop chasing whatever Trump’s thumbs tap out. Others think the chase is unavoidable and necessary. Still others contend that the chase ought to be done differently.
Perhaps the media will find the perfect strategy over the next four years. For now, covering the tweeter-in-chief remains a major challenge.