How News Networks Should Cover Someone Like Donald Trump

Ratings-Come-First Journalism Turns News Networks Into Trump Enablers

Donald Trump is political media's dream candidate. He supplies news networks with a seemingly endless supply of ridiculous sound bites, over-the-top press conferences, and legitimate scandals. As a result, news networks have devolved into 24-hour Trump channels, covering his every speech, press conference, stunt, and tweet. And they've compromised some of their most basic journalistic standards in hopes of earning access to the candidate.

But Trump isn't just a charismatic performer, and he's not a typical presidential candidate -- he's a racist, bigoted, proto-fascist whose rallies have become hotbeds of violent extremism. He's a serial liar without a consistent or serious policy agenda.

And he routinely exploits one of the mainstream media's greatest weaknesses -- its addiction to political theatrics -- to keep his campaign front and center in the public's imagination.

The horse race journalism that's defined the past few election cycles isn't appropriate for covering a figure like Trump. To properly report on Trump's candidacy, news networks will have to adjust their typical, ratings-come-first approach to election coverage.

1. Stop Airing Entire Trump Events

Much of Trump's dominance of the news cycle is a result of news networks' willingness to air many of his stump speeches and press conferences live, unedited, and without commercial breaks. Veteran campaign reporter Walter Shapiro called the airing of Trump's speeches by networks unprecedented, adding “No one has ever gotten to have all of their campaign speeches broadcast unedited.”

His speeches make for good television -- he calls Ted Cruz a "pussy," imitates Marco Rubio, botches Bible verses, pulls bizarre supporters on stage. But beyond sheer entertainment value, there's rarely a good journalistic reason to give Trump's speeches so much attention.

News networks' inability to look away from the Trump circus means Trump can rely on the media to deliver his campaign messages, unfiltered, to millions more voters than would otherwise hear them. And that special treatment means Trump's opponents in both parties are forced to compete in a news environment that gives Trump millions of dollars in free advertising and exposure.

2. End Trump's Call-In Interview Privileges

Trump has taken advantage of news networks' willingness to allow him to call in to his television interviews over the phone. It's a privilege he uses frequently -- he conducted 69 phone interviews in the first 69 days of 2016.

Phone interviews give Trump an obvious advantage over his rivals: he can ignore visual cues and body language, potentially review notes and talking points during the conversation, more easily steamroll over his interviewers' questions, and avoid awkward confrontations. Phone interviews also allow Trump to tightly control his image -- he gets his polished headshot on screen without running the risk of looking bad on camera. And the frequency with which he does phone interviews allows him to flood the airwaves with very little effort.

3. Start Identifying Hate For What It Is

Trump is running an aggressively hateful campaign. It's difficult to imagine a major presidential candidate being more explicitly bigoted than one who refers to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” and proposes banning Muslims from entering the country, to say nothing of his support among white supremacists and increasingly toxic rallies.

The fact that he's supported by millions of Americans does not somehow make his comments about Mexicans and Muslims less bigoted. The fact that he denies being a bigot does not make it any less objectively true.

But too many journalists and news outlets have shied away from using terms like “bigot” and “racist” to describe Trump's campaign, choosing neutral terms like "controversial" instead. That avoidance is irresponsible and dishonest -- it obscures the real ugliness of his campaign and downplays gross bigotry to the level of a routine policy disagreement. It tacitly mainstreams that hate by treating it as little more than a partisan policy disagreement. To talk about Trump's rise without acknowledging the anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim animus fueling it is to not tell the full story -- neutrality at the expense of accuracy. Good journalism demands that media outlets can distinguish between partisan disagreements and blatant, indefensible bigotry and scapegoating.

4. Accept That Trump Doesn't Care About Fact-Checking

Trump isn't concerned with appearing honest or consistent. He's the master of deflecting tough questions by going on long, rambling tangents. He's quick to backpedal from or completely reverse his positions under scrutiny. He's an unrepentant, serial liar who shows no concern about how frequently his public statements turn out to be completely wrong.

Trying to hold Trump accountable for every lie he tells is like bailing water out of the Titanic -- it may feel good and right, but it ignores the bigger problem.

What's missing is the willingness to treat Trump's lies as more than isolated events, to tie his statements to a broader narrative about Trump's trustworthiness. The controversies around Hillary Clinton's email servers and Benghazi were just the latest iterations of a media narrative that suggests Hillary Clinton can't be trusted. But Trump's repeated, bald-faced lying hasn't similarly tarnished his reputation as a straight-talker. Nine months into Trump's campaign, news networks should be comfortable holding him to the same standards of honesty and consistency they hold other candidates.

5. Don't Take The Bait

It's unfair to call the media's treatment of Donald Trump “fawning”. Many journalists and commentators have correctly and repeatedly documented Trump's racism, misogyny, and dishonesty. The real problem is that news networks are incapable of distinguishing between meaningful Trump stories and the bullshit political theater Trump puts on daily.

In a typical news cycle, networks can treat any gaffe or off-color remark as newsworthy -- politicians are trained to stick to their prepared talking points and choose their words wisely, so public missteps, like Mitt Romney's “47 percent” comment or Howard Dean's infamous scream, get a lot of media attention, and can seriously derail a campaign.

But Trump's unfiltered campaign style throws a monkey wrench into that dynamic, saturating the news cycle with more sound bites, press conferences, stunts, and pseudo-controversies than networks can keep up with. As former CBS News correspondent Eric Engberg told Media Matters, “Trump is smart enough to know that if he gets out in front of the media with some outrageous statement, he backs up their ability to follow up the outrageous statement he made yesterday.” 

That kind of frenetic, breakneck Trump coverage makes for great television, but it's a terrible way of vetting a candidate. It makes it difficult for voters to figure out what actually matters on the campaign trail. The significance of Trump's bigotry and absurd policy ideas gets diluted - “flattened and folded into a 'there he goes again' outrage-a-thon.” Networks are so busy keeping their viewers entertained by Trump's theatrics that they end up treating Trump like an entertainer -- someone who's held to different standards than the rest of the presidential candidates.

Asking news networks to stop focusing on Trump is misguided -- Trump's campaign and rise in GOP politics is tremendously significant and newsworthy. But the classic, horse race approach to campaign coverage isn't appropriate anymore. Trump has figured out how to game that system, and networks that continue treating his campaign like a harmless ratings spectacle risk becoming de facto Trump-enablers.  

The responsibility of the media in an election cycle is to cut through the noise and bluster and help voters make informed decisions about which candidate is most qualified to run the country. That means resisting the urge to chase every shiny new Trump story. It means refusing to let Trump constantly phone in for interviews in the quest for more access to the candidate. And it means having the courage to look beyond the Trump spectacle and identify his campaign as what it is - a billionaire carnival barker's racist, hateful, and deeply dishonest effort to become the most powerful person in the country.

Video by John Kerr, Carlos Maza, and Leanne Naramore. Top image by Sarah Wasko.