By reframing Trump's incoherent, inaccurate ramblings as bland political copy, journalists are carrying water for the president
Reality TV journalism for a reality TV president doesn’t cut it
While projecting himself as one of the world’s most successful business tycoons had long been part of Donald Trump’s approach to public relations, the reality TV show The Apprentice is what gave him a weekly audience of millions willing to indulge his fantasy. According to a 2018 New Yorker profile of TV producer Mark Burnett, for every hour of the show, as many as 300 hours were filmed, with editors and producers working to bring coherence to Trump’s weekly decisions about which candidates should be fired. The piece said Trump was regularly unprepared to make real judgments during boardroom scenes, and “editors were often obliged to ‘reverse engineer’ the episode, scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up, in an attempt to assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense.”
Whether they know it or not, journalists use some of the same tactics as reality TV producers when it comes to covering Trump.
On March 11, Trump delivered a rare Oval Office address to the nation, just his second since becoming president, to announce actions he was taking to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. The speech came the same day that the World Health Organization had officially declared the novel coronavirus driving the disease’s outbreak a pandemic.
Trump squinted as he seemed to struggle reading his speech off the teleprompter. After blaming the inaction of other countries for the spread of what he called a “foreign virus,” Trump announced a 30-day ban on all flights from Europe, with an exemption for flights coming from the United Kingdom, and made a handful of vague comments about helping industries affected by the disease. Immediately after Trump wrapped up, the White House had to issue clarifications directly contradicting what he said. Americans would still be able to fly during the 30-day period, it wasn’t only the UK that was given an exemption, and the new policy wouldn’t affect cargo flights, just passengers. This series of unforced errors, delivered by an uncharacteristically lethargic Trump, did little to calm nervous investors around the world, and stocks cratered the following morning.
If you didn’t see the speech and only read about it in mainstream media outlets the next day, you might come away with a completely different impression of what happened. The Times described Trump as “sitting somberly behind the Resolute Desk,” an odd normalization of an abnormal and disastrous speech.
It’s these attempts by journalists to frame Trump’s words and actions as they would those of any world leader that give Trump an advantage. No matter how many times he’s demonstrated that he’s unable to take the job of president seriously, without corruption or incompetence, reporters and editors continue to present his words and actions in a sanitized way, lacking the necessary context about his history of lies and wrongdoing.
For example: On March 5, Trump participated in a town hall hosted by Fox News in Scranton, PA. There, he made a series of wild claims about his commitment to covering preexisting conditions in any health bill he’d support (his administration has actually urged the Supreme Court to strip those protections from current law), took credit for construction projects he had nothing to do with, lied about President Barack Obama requesting a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and offered misleading answers about his administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.
He was rambling and incoherent, but that’s not the impression you’d likely get if you read about the event in The New York Times. “In Biden’s Hometown, Trump Says He’s Ready to Face Off Against Him” reads the headline of a March 5 article in the Times.
What was erratic was reframed as perfectly normal. The article portrayed the event as a contrast from Trump’s rallies, including lines like “His quiet exchanges with polite questioners was a far cry from the shouted slogans and bawdy call-and-response of his typical ‘Keep America Great’ events.”
It’s not as though the New York Times article -- and others we criticize here -- completely ignored facts; false statements were sometimes corrected, but buried several paragraphs deep beneath the Trump-friendly framing.
On March 6, the Times detailed Trump’s trip to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA. Trump showed up to the facility wearing his own campaign merchandise. While there, he bragged about the ratings of his Fox News town hall, brushed off people who’ve died from COVID-19 because “they’ve been largely old people who are -- who were susceptible to what’s happening,” boasted that his rallies still attract tens of thousands of people, falsely claimed that anybody who “wants a test can get a test” for the disease, said he didn’t want to let people stuck on a cruise ship off because he “would rather have the numbers stay where they are,” claimed he had a natural ability to understand medicine, and called Washington Gov. Jay Inslee a “snake.”
As CNN's Brian Stelter explained:
The version of the event presented by the Times in its headline and lede told a far different story.
President Trump sought to play down the coronavirus outbreak on Friday and offered a vote of confidence to besieged federal health officials as infections spread further, markets tumbled again and the authorities scrambled to accelerate the availability of testing kits across the country.
“It will end,” Mr. Trump said during a visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the headquarters of the federal government’s efforts to combat the virus. “People have to remain calm.”
CNN ran an article highlighting Trump as getting “combative with governors,” a sanitized way of talking about Trump’s decision to call Inslee “a snake” in response to one of Inslee’s tweets and to sling insults at New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “Trump's characteristic bombast has not abated even at this precarious time for his presidency -- and even with his reelection on the line,” reads the article.
On February 26, The Washington Post published a story describing a Trump appearance that day in the White House briefing room. Trump “struck an optimistic tone about the virus,” according to the article, which noted his “positive message.” The Los Angeles Times gave a window into a perfectly normal briefing in which “officials urged Americans to take basic precautions, such as washing hands and staying home if sick. And Trump acknowledged that the administration has plans for ‘large scale’ quarantines should they be needed.”
In reality, Trump lied about the speed at which a vaccine would be available, repeatedly contradicted health experts about the inevitability of the virus’s spread, downplayed U.S. COVID-19 deaths by comparing them to much larger flu numbers, blamed the stock market decline on Democrats hosting a debate, and referred to the Senate majority leader as “cryin’ Chuck Schumer.”
Trump, the businessman, wasn’t what viewers of The Apprentice got to see; an honest version of Trump, the president, isn’t what the public gets, either.
Journalists are much like the Apprentice producers who weeded through 300 hours of footage before deciding which clips would be used to make an hour of television. No matter the subject, reporters and editors are forced to condense large events into short, digestible articles and segments. In many cases, this is fine. Not every question asked during a press conference will be relevant to a reporter’s story, and not every word that escapes the president’s mouth needs to make it into print. The problem with how this type of editing applies to Trump is that, whether they intend to or not, journalists often end up creating the impression of a more palatable version of the president than actually exists.
And this approach is far from limited to Trump’s response to COVID-19; mainstream media have portrayed Trump as a thoroughly normal leader throughout his presidency. In August, a man shot and killed 22 people inside an El Paso, TX, Walmart. The shooter’s manifesto showed that he was inspired by the white supremacist “great replacement” conspiracy theory and that he carried out the murder as a way to fight back against what he called the “Hispanic invasion,” echoing rhetoric frequently pushed by far-right media outlets. In response to the shooting, Trump placed blame on “mental illness and hate” and read a statement off of a teleprompter to say “our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”
Trump’s words rang hollow to many, as they were inconsistent with so much of what he’s said for years. Whether it was his ongoing crusade to convince people that Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., his decision to call Mexicans “rapists” during his campaign announcement, or his call to ban Muslims from entering the country while he ran, his public comments have never been in line with a call to “condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy.”
The next day, the New York Times and other major newspapers ran headlines that took Trump at his word.
Following the House of Representatives’ historic vote to impeach him, Trump delivered a two-hour diatribe during a rally in Battle Creek, MI. He rambled on about how fighter pilots were more attractive than Tom Cruise, he suggested that Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell’s late husband Rep. John Dingell was in hell, he acted out text messages between former FBI lawyer Lisa Page and former FBI agent Peter Strzok, he mocked a protester, and he bragged about firing FBI Director James Comey.
The Times couched its coverage under a respectable-sounding headline: “Trump, Unbowed, Uses Rally to Strike Back Against Impeachment Vote.” At CNN, his behavior was framed as “An impeached Trump tries looking ahead, but uncertainty threatens Senate vindication.”
Throughout his presidency, there have been a number of articles about Trump supporters and others who dislike the outlandish content of his Twitter feed. What’s always been strange about this as a criticism is that it treats his tweets as outliers. But if one were to watch his rallies or occasional press conferences, it would be clear that he’s just as outrageous and unhinged when speaking as he is while tweeting. The big difference is that in tweets, he’s giving the world a direct look at who he is. In coverage of his spoken remarks, the chaos is largely edited out.
The examples go on, but the underlying question remains: Why are journalists reluctant to show the president for who he really is?
“Most of us knew he was a fake,” Apprentice editor Jonathon Braun told The New Yorker. “He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.”
In September 2017, journalism professor Jay Rosen published a blog with a list of things “most every journalist who covers Trump knows.” The list includes bullet points about Trump’s ignorance, his unwillingness to learn new things, and his penchant for lying.
It’s not like [these points] have been kept secret. Journalists tell us about them all the time. Their code requires that. Simultaneously, however, they are called by their code to respect the voters’ choice, as well as the American presidency, of which they see themselves a vital part, as well as the beat, the job of White House reporting. The two parts of the code are in conflict.
If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that.
Rosen posits that it’s out of a desire to retain respect for their own work that journalists try so hard to portray Trump as an ordinary, normal president.
This is “normalization.” This is what “tonight he became president” is about. This is why he’s called “transactional,” why a turn to bipartisanship is right now being test-marketed by headline writers. This is why “deal-making” is said to be afoot when there is barely any evidence of a deal.
What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect. So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.
But as a result, readers, viewers, and voters without the desire or luxury of being able to watch full, uninterrupted rallies and press conferences simply aren’t being given a realistic look at who the president is or what he stands for. Just as editors on The Apprentice had to “reverse engineer” episodes to “assemble an artificial version of history in which Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decision made sense” whenever he eliminated a contestant who clearly didn’t deserve it, news media do the same, making sense out of madness and providing a bit of false comfort to their audiences.
The Apprentice gave us a prime-time version of Trump, the fictional business mogul; the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and others give us Trump, the fictional president. The public deserves better.