The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How will the media cover Trump in 2024? Insiders are sounding the alarm.

(Rachel Mummey/Reuters)
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With ominous signs mounting that Donald Trump really may run again for president in 2024, a debate has begun to simmer in newsrooms: How can the press avoid the pitfalls in covering Trump that bedeviled 2016 and 2020?

More broadly, how do you cover a candidate who is explicitly anti-democracy while simultaneously maintaining both the media’s conventions of nominal objectivity and its small-L liberal commitments?

This debate has now been placed squarely on the public agenda by two mainstream journalists: Jon Karl of ABC News and Brian Stelter of CNN. Stelter recently asked Karl how the press should cover a Trump 2024 run, and Karl said this:

It’s an immense challenge because you’re covering — you’re covering essentially an anti-democratic candidate, you’re covering somebody running in a system that is trying to undermine that very system and somebody who is going to be perpetually lying.

Karl noted that he doesn’t have the answer to this yet. Stelter replied: “This is definitely the conversation that’s starting to happen in newsrooms.”

I think press critic Jay Rosen is right to hope this is a galvanizing moment. As Rosen noted in an important new thread, Karl and Stelter are plugged-in among establishment journalists, which means this debate is a live one among journalists with real influence.

If so, says Rosen, news organizations cannot possibly return to the “old model," in which Trump rallies were covered unfiltered and relentless lying and deliberate propaganda were routinely treated as one side of conventional political arguments, laundering those tactics and rewarding them.

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To be clear, many in the press take this challenge extremely seriously, as Dan Froomkin’s overview of ongoing coverage changes in response to it usefully demonstrates. But still, coming from those two top journalists, recognition of the problem and a frank acknowledgment that the solution remains broadly elusive constitute a loud, clanging alarm from within.

Trump may not run. But either way, the problem remains, because Republicans are widely adopting his style of politics. Meanwhile, as an extraordinary new Post report documents, Trump loyalists and Republicans echoing Trump’s 2020 lies are insinuating themselves into positions of control over election machinery everywhere.

More than 10 months after leaving office, former president Donald Trump maintains a powerful hold over the Republican Party. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

So a form of politics that is fundamentally anti-democracy at its core — and expressly organized around the mission of discrediting or subverting hated election outcomes — is likely to saturate the 2024 contest.

So here are a few suggestions for proceeding:

Let’s stop saying Trump and/or his supporters “actually believe” 2020 was stolen. This formulation is baseless — we don’t know what they “actually believe” — and effectively downplays the gravity of the current threat to democracy. By casting this as a matter of personal belief — or personal loyalty to Trump — it obscures the degree to which the lying represents propaganda expressly designed for a deliberate instrumental real-world purpose.

This isn’t an “actual belief”; it’s the intentional manufacturing of a fake pretext to subvert elections later by whatever means are necessary or available. This needs to be clearly conveyed.

No more platitudes about “deep divisions” and “two different realities." When Trump-loyal Republicans claim our election system is rendering fraudulent results, or when they flirt with political violence as a recourse — and when pro-democracy lawmakers in both parties call this out — the temptation is strong to treat this as symptomatic of “deep divisions” that lead people to adopt “two different realities.”

But this obscures the notion that there can be a legitimate way for officials to approach big public debates, in contrast to a way that is fundamentally out of bounds from the baseline perspective of small-L liberal commitments to deliberative democracy. It creates the impression that these constitute breakdowns to which both sides are in some sense contributing equivalently, as opposed to being the product of one side’s bad acting.

Boosting Trump’s election lies is not clever politics. News organizations declared that Virginia governor-elect Glenn Youngkin cleverly found the right “formula” by balancing under-the-radar Trumpist appeals with a softer pitch to suburbanites.

But in this case, those Trumpist appeals constituted boosting Trump’s lies about our election system and going on right-wing media to lie that the Justice Department is persecuting parents, when in fact the department sought to defend educators from violent threats.

If the 2024 GOP candidate is not Trump, that candidate will surely engage in this tactic. But at some point, casting such stuff as clever positioning launders away its deeply pernicious nature.

When bad actors manufacture “an issue,” it isn’t necessarily news. Sometimes news organizations amplify political attacks by treating them as inherently newsworthy. One frequent rationalization for covering such talking points is that some new development “created ammunition” for the attacker to “make an issue” out of it.

This is a dodge: It relieves us of determining whether the given development does or does not legitimately constitute “ammunition” to make a political argument.

At some point a judgment must be made: If a political argument is fundamentally absurd at its core, we shouldn’t function as billboards to blare it forth. This is an old problem, but Trump made it worse by adopting a more concerted strategy of disinformation expressly designed to get news organizations to inject it into the discussion.

As Sean Illing memorably put it, this effectively “hacked” the media. If Trump or a candidate emulating his political style runs in 2024, it’ll get worse.

And so will all these other problems. Karl and Stelter have sounded the alarm, and the clock is ticking.