How mainstream media failed when covering Trump’s State of the Union speech

In 2020, many journalists are still desperately trying to normalize Trump's presidency

Prominent U.S. media outlets often project a compulsive need to normalize the bizarreness of Donald Trump’s presidency, and last night’s State of the Union address was no different. Although it was riddled with lies aimed at smearing Democrats and shamelessly boosting his image, many news outlets covered Trump’s speech through a traditional lens that lacked context of his last three years in office.

As The Daily Beast aptly characterized it, the speech was a “nationalist, anti-immigrant, socialism-hating game show.” Trump rewarded conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh's decades of spewing racism, homophobia, and sexism with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- while simultaneously touting his own supposed support of women and African Americans. He railed against “illegal aliens” and painted all undocumented immigrants as ravenous criminals. Trump fearmongered that the Second Amendment is “under siege” in America, vowing to protect gun owners but not mentioning thousands of Americans who die each year by gun violence. He even used a toddler, born prematurely at 21 weeks, as a prop to push for restricting abortion access. 

Trump’s speech was also riddled with lies, as we’ve come to expect of a president who is a compulsive liar, and he drastically misrepresented many aspects of his policy. In one example, Trump absurdly claimed that he is fighting to protect preexisting conditions as his administration is currently in court trying to slash the entire Affordable Care Act, which guarantees such protections. He also touted his “great American comeback” from the economic mess he supposedly inherited from former president Barack Obama -- a statement which has no bearing in reality.

Despite the nonsensical spectacle of Trump’s State of the Union, many in mainstream media rushed to normalize aspects of his speech. Some outlets gushed that Trump’s speech was a “78-minute extravaganza” and praised his “defiant showmanship” and “talent” as “somebody from the world of reality television.” Others were critical of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for ripping up Trump’s speech, longing for the days of decorum while ignoring the laundry list of norms Trump has broken since 2016. Some outlets also parroted Trump’s claims without context in headlines -- a problem media outlets have never successfully grappled with in the Trump age -- despite the fact that many of them were blatant lies.  

While it is true that Trump managed to make it through the speech without hurling below-the-belt, childish insults at his enemies -- which is apparently the bar for success that many media figures have set for him -- his State of the Union speech was not the “dazzling” success some outlets confoundingly described it as in their coverage.

Gushing over Trump’s speech based on an extremely low bar

CNN’s Rick Santorum gushed, “This was the best delivered speech that I've seen the president give. I mean, this was the most presidential speech Donald Trump has ever given.”

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Citation From the February 4, 2020, edition of CNN's The State Of The Union Address

ABC’s Chris Christie said that the speech was “Donald Trump at his best,” adding that he “was disciplined” and “laid out his argument … strongly and clearly and directly.” Christie concluded that Trump “gets an A-plus.” 

CNN reporter Stephen Collinson analyzed Trump’s “dazzling” performance, writing, “If elections are won by defiant showmanship alone, Donald Trump, the grand political illusionist, will waltz to a second term in November.”

CBS’ Norah O’Donnell tweeted, “This was a speech unlike any other I have witnessed from President Donald Trump - the reality TV president took on the state of the union, a master showman at his best.”

CNN’s Jake Tapper praised the theatrics of Trump’s speech, saying that “we have never seen anything like that before,” adding that Trump is “somebody from the world of reality television” and “he was trying to have these moments for the American people to experience.” Tapper concluded that it “worked on a lot of people.” 

ABC’s Martha Raddatz said that the speech was “Donald Trump measured, weaving an incredible story with a lot of heroes involved.” 

ABC’s George Stephanopolous said that Trump “came out of reality television, and he displayed that talent tonight” in a “78-minute extravaganza,” adding that he “reached out to the African American community in an emotional way.” 

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Citation From ABC News' February 4, 2020, State of the Union live coverage

Claiming Pelosi was “tossing shade” and lacking decorum in ripping up Trump’s speech

MSNBC’s Willie Geist said that “for my money, … ripping up the script at the end is not what the country needs.” 

Geist also said that Pelosi was “tossing shade” by ripping up her copy of Trump's speech, saying that it “plays great on Twitter” and “plays very well to some very enthusiastic progressives” and asking,  “Does it help matters to have the speaker of the House lower herself to the president’s level?”

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Citation From the February 5, 2020, edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe

CNN’s Dana Bash said “there’s no question” that Pelosi ripping up her copy of the speech is the “kind of reaction … she admonished her own caucus not to do” and “shows you we're at a completely different place right now.”

Responding to accusations that Trump’s speech was divisive, CNN host John Berman asked: “What message does it send when the House speaker … rips up a copy of the speech? What message does that send?” 

Many outlets uncritically repeated Trump’s talking points about economic recovery 

The Hill tweeted that “Trump credits economic progress to environmental rollbacks” without noting that there isn’t evidence of that.

The Hill also tweeted a quote verbatim from Trump: “If we had not reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration, the world would not now be witness to America's great economic success.”

The Washington Post’s front-page headline claimed, “Trump sees vindication in [the] economy.” 

The Wall Street Journal’s front-page headline declared, “Trump touts economic gains.” 

The Boston Globe’s front page claimed that Trump’s speech “highlights ‘unimaginable’ US comeback.” 

Many news outlets also parroted Trump’s claims that Democrats are trying to destroy health care through “socialism” 

Politico tweeted a quote from Trump with no context: “We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare!”

The Washington Post uncritically parroted Trump’s claim that “132 lawmakers in this room have endorsed legislation to impose a socialist takeover of our healthcare system, wiping out the private health insurance plans of 180 million very happy Americans."

The Daily Beast tweeted the president’s talking points without pushback: “Trump talked about healthcare at tonight’s #SOTU, mostly going after Dems and Medicare-for-All, saying: ‘We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare.’”

Reuters also tweeted Trump’s quote verbatim: “We will never let socialism destroy American healthcare.”