How the Press Can Beat Trump

This piece originally appeared on Medium on January 23, 2017.

Last week, the Times published one of its most important pieces on the Trump administration, Jim Rutenberg’s “As Trump Berates News Media, A New Strategy is Needed to Cover Him.” Mr. Rutenberg wrote, “The news media remains an unwitting accomplice in its own diminishment as it fails to get a handle on how to cover this new and wholly unprecedented president. It better figure things out […]”

Mr. Rutenberg’s piece is vitally important because the press is in an unprecedentedly difficult position: First, it must remind the world that it is one of the pillars on which democracy stands (there is a reason the first amendment is first); second, it is a constant and particular target of the President; and third, it must figure out how to do its job in a strange and chaotic landscape in order to disrupt the vicious cycle generated by the first two factors. If it is ill equipped to keep itself alive, its survival is bound up with the Republic’s.

Mr. Rutenberg wrote that journalists must “find the courage to change the things they can, in the right ways, not the wrong ways.” Reporters can safeguard their duty with a simple but effective shift in coverage: they must report on patterns and actions, not “content.” Trump lies and contradicts himself so consistently, so intentionally, that reporting his words as though they contain actual information is a waste of time and an accelerant of his agenda. An effective report, rather than beginning, “Trump says…”, might read, “Trump continues stream of Twitter rants laced with inaccuracies, falsehoods, and inconsistencies.” This method identifies the real story: the pattern, the phenomenon, the what of what Trump is doing.

But to report (or worse, retweet) each of his deliberately false statements, as many in the news media have been doing, spreads mendacious content that adds no value to the general body of knowledge and continues to miss the real story: that the President of the United States is engaged in a longterm and ongoing practice of publishing lies and deceit via a personal channel, consolidating federal authority within himself, confusing personal reaction with national policy.

Authoritarians sow chaos so they can act while others are still stunned reacting. Journalists, appalled (as most normal humans would be, presented with such a staggering conflagration of nonsense and falsehood) are left sputtering in shock, looking foolish and impotent. Reporting the patterns of the President’s (and his staff’s) mendacity, rather than trying to react to the lies themselves, denies them this power.

This week, the news media appear to have begun catching on. On January 21, after Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, welcomed the press to the White House briefing room by berating them and then unleashing a tirade of lies about inauguration numbers, the Times headline read, “With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift.” The same day, on “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd interrupted Kellyanne Conway’s astounding claim that the White House was offering “alternative facts” to defuse the term: “those are falsehoods.

The press can beat Trump, and they must. To do so will require them to eschew the presumed traditions of access journalism, and to take the Trump administration up on its adversarial challenge. They must meet its corrosive antagonism with ferocious defiance. Courageously, relentlessly, and fearlessly, they must dig, uncover, reveal, and name. Under appalling duress, they can save themselves — and preserve the Republic — by doing their jobs.