President Donald Trump shatters political norms at an unprecedented rate that can overwhelm the press. So what does it mean to “adopt” his “playbook”? According to CBS News White House correspondent Paula Reid, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden did so on Friday by expressing frustration with one of her network’s reporters who had asked him about the New York Post’s smear campaign. “We cannot normalize insulting reporters for asking questions,” she added.
The Trump “playbook” on the media should be defined by the goals, tactics, and results that distinguish him from typical politicians. Biden and Trump have both criticized reporters. But that doesn’t make them unique -- many politicians push back when they view questions as unfair. Suggesting otherwise diminishes Trump’s deviancy, which only makes it more difficult for the public to understand the differences between the candidates and harder for the press to disincentivize his particularly horrific attacks on journalists.
Trump’s self-described “war with the media" is at the core of his political strategy. By delegitimizing the press as a source of negative information about his regime, he keeps his base intact and confuses other members of the public, making it more difficult to hold him accountable.
His sustained, vicious campaign against journalists is built on decades of rhetoric from right-wing media outlets and politicians. But it is both more intense and more consistent than anything we’ve seen before. He regularly invokes terms like “fake news” and “enemy of the people” to cast aspersions on news outlets that produce critical reporting; baselessly accuses them of fabricating negative stories about his administration using anonymous sources that don’t exist; characterizes individual journalists who displease him with vile language; frequently calls for the firings of specific reporters, cable and broadcast news hosts, and network heads; treats them as hate objects during campaign rallies; publicly cheers physical assaults on journalists by Republican politicians and law enforcement; and even reportedly uses the power of the federal government to apply pressure to the owners of media organizations.
At two rallies just this past weekend, Trump used the phrase “fake news” at least 14 times; described CNN reporters in particular as “sick people” and “one of the most dishonest groups of people I’ve ever seen in my life”; repeatedly claimed journalists are in cahoots with Democrats, including by falsely accusing them of giving Biden “the questions and the answers” at press conferences; and urged attendees to vote for him in order to “send a message to the fake news media.” As I was finishing up this article, he told a reporter during a press gaggle that he was “a criminal for not reporting” on the Hunter Biden story.
Those unique plays have led to unprecedented results. Trump made the press toxic among his base during the 2016 presidential campaign and kept it that way throughout his administration. But the downstream effects of his incitement go far beyond increasing skepticism about media reporting. Domestically, they include a Trump superfan mailing explosives to CNN; people using similar language while issuing death threats to media outlets; journalists being subjected to anti-press jeers, chants of “lock them up,” and even physical attacks at Trump’s rallies; and a slew of reporters targeted for violence by law enforcement at protests. Internationally, they include foreign dictators feeling emboldened to crack down on the press, including Saudi Arabia’s murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi.
By contrast, when Biden was asked by a CBS News reporter for his response to the New York Post’s Hunter Biden smear campaign, he responded by calling it a smear campaign and telling the reporter it was “right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.” You can argue that the Post isn’t conducting a “smear campaign,” though it seems quite obvious that it is, and Reid acknowledged the story’s red flags, even as she added fuel to the fire. You can argue that Biden was rude to the reporter -- it would surely be convenient for journalists to establish the norm that criticizing them is off the table. But invoking Trump’s “playbook” is patently absurd -- they aren’t even playing the same sport.
Flattening the difference between the candidates this way does a disservice to the public. The takeaway becomes that “both sides” are overly critical of the media, ignoring the degree to which one side is behaving very differently from the other. The resulting false equivalence gives people a skewed view of the parties because they internalize the way the press covers them in relation to each other. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to dissuade Trump and other members of his party from pursuing this strategy, particularly since their partisans are less likely to care about attacks on the press.
It also points to a looming problem for future coverage. Trump has been the center of the political universe for the last five years. At some point journalists are going to need to figure out how to talk about the world without invoking his behavior. If they don’t, that’s what will end up normalizing Trump, not Biden criticizing a reporter’s questions.