In case you hadn’t noticed, President-elect Donald Trump has continued to use Twitter pretty much as candidate Donald Trump used Twitter. The media is having a devil of a time trying to figure out how to respond. I’ve come to the conclusion that having a common media response is self-defeating in the age of Trump.
In the past few days, Trump has used Twitter to falsely claim that he really won the popular vote and to make baseless allegations that there was massive electoral fraud against him in some states. He flipped out on CNN’s Jeff Zeleny for some reason. He also stated that flag-burners should be jailed and/or stripped of their U.S. citizenship, both of which are illegal.
Even Trump’s closest supporters have balked at some of his statements. His staff failed to offer any evidence for the mythical electoral fraud that he alleged. Newt Gingrich told USA Today that, “Presidents of the United States can’t randomly tweet without having somebody check it out. . . . It makes you wonder about whatever else he’s doing. It undermines much more than just a single tweet.”
The media has been having a raging debate over how to properly respond to Trump’s tweets. The Politico school, epitomized by Jack Shafer, argues that Trump’s Twitter provocations are mostly strategic in nature, to distract the media from damaging stories about Trump, and therefore require thoughtful, disciplined responses. Politico’s Eli Stokols also noted the problematic dynamic that is emerging: “Trump’s willingness to flout the norms, to bulldoze political niceties, has only solidified his standing with millions of supporters and forced his foes into their roles as pointy-headed, overly intellectualized coastal elites.”
John Podhoretz offers a different interpretation of Trump’s tweets in the New York Post. Let’s call this the “Trump is winging it” school:
We [in the media] assume politicians know their words are being carefully studied and that they issue those words with care so they aren’t inadvertently misunderstood. We want to understand what our leaders are up to. We want to categorize their actions. We want to use that understanding to deepen our sense of where we are and where we’re going.
But we’re missing one profound thing about Trump, and we keep missing it, and we will continue to miss it: Trump is not a politician. He doesn’t think of himself as a politician, and he doesn’t act like a politician, and we’re all desperately trying to fit him into our understanding of what he’s supposed to be. …
He improvised his way to the presidency, he’s improvising his way through the transition and it’s likely he’ll continue to improvise as president.
As someone who has written recently about how Trump’s words will be viewed overseas, I think there’s truth in both these schools of thought. Trump has often tweeted something outrageous as a means of distraction, but his flag-burning tweet seemed to come out of nowhere. It’s possible that he’s learning about the virtues of randomized strategies in a world of imperfect information, but I really don’t think so.
I have one semi-deep thought about all of this, and it’s a rather depressing one: The very effort to fashion a clear strategy of how to respond to Trump’s tweets is in itself problematic.
Don’t get me wrong, I think we’re operating in a new and uncomfortable media environment. My boss’s boss said recently: “We will have a new president soon. He was elected after waging an outright assault on the press.” He ain’t wrong. Trump’s
house elves closest advisers are advising him to bypass the press entirely. Given Trump’s combination of obsession and disdain for the media, individual outlets will need to figure out how best to cope with social media provocations by the most powerful man in America.
The trouble comes if and/or when Americans perceive that the media is fashioning a collective response to Trump. It’s not like American trust in the media is very high — it’s more like the opposite of that. Trump supporters/sympathizers will interpret any effort at a coordinated response as further evidence that the media is rigged and can therefore be ignored.
Fortunately, I don’t think that there will be a coordinated response. I’m not a journalist, but I have interacted with and observed them in
bars their natural habitats. They’re a cantankerous lot. I doubt that there will ever be any consensus on what the best practices are in coping with a dissembling, Twitter-addicted commander in chief.