Major newspapers bury Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power

trump transfer of power

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

President Donald Trump yesterday refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November election. His disturbing comments point to the possibility of -- and bring the nation closer to -- a historic democratic crisis this fall. But many of the nation’s leading newspapers did not cover the remarks on their Thursday front pages, and some did not cover them at all.

“Will you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferal of power after the election?” a reporter asked the president during Wednesday’s press briefing. It’s an incredibly simple question that would be unnecessary to ask any other candidate in recent history, but it could have only one answer: “Yes.” 

Instead, Trump replied by continuing his monthslong campaign to delegitimize the election results with baseless claims about mail-in voting, saying, “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that. I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. And the ballots are a disaster.” Asked again whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power, he replied that if we “get rid of the ballots” then “there won’t be a transfer, frankly; there’ll be a continuation.”

In a critical moment for the nation’s democratic system, we need the press to convey the urgency and danger of the situation. And reporters at some major newspapers are rising to the occasion, highlighting how Trump’s remarks “could lead to a constitutional crisis” and failed to “endorse perhaps the most fundamental tenet of American democracy.” 

But the placement of their reports indicate that their editors are not taking Trump’s comments seriously enough. Look at a newspaper’s front page and you’ll see the stories its leaders believe are the most important. The New York Times story on Trump’s remarks ran on A15, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reports on A4, and the Los Angeles Times covered it on A6. Moreover, USA Today and the Chicago Tribune did not mention the story in their Thursday print editions at all.

Experts and journalists responded with dismay when I highlighted some of these findings on Twitter.

“The media must convey that we are facing a democratic emergency,” the political scientist Brendan Nyhan wrote. “The fact that Trump has said similar things before does not in any way reduce the gravity of the situation.”

“Unbelievable that some of the nation's biggest newsrooms don't consider this front page news,” commented Vanity Fair senior editor Michael Calderone.

I wrote earlier on Wednesday that Trump is adept at taking advantage of the finite size of the newshole, flooding the zone with so many reprehensible comments that the press has trouble giving any of them their due.  

While there were several other important stories that broke yesterday, that isn’t what is happening here. In this case, newspaper editors made the decision to put other stories from the campaign and White House beats on their front pages and to push their reports on his anti-democratic comments inside the paper. The New York Times has an A1 story on Trump’s support in the Milwaukee suburbs, while the Los Angeles Times front page has one on the presidential candidates’ preparations for the upcoming debates, and The Washington Post prioritized an article on Trump’s search for health care “wins.” Any of these could have been replaced by the papers’ report on Trump’s comments, but the editors decided they were more important.

Other news outlets made different decisions. All three major broadcast morning shows made Trump’s remarks their second story of the day on Thursday, following coverage of protests in Louisville after a Kentucky grand jury brought no charges against police for killing Breonna Taylor. And The Dallas Morning News was one paper that ran the story on its front page. 

Instead, the newspapers’ treatment of the story resembled what happened in July, when Trump baselessly accused former President Barack Obama of treason. If something like that happened elsewhere in the world, it would be interpreted as a sign that the state’s democratic institutions were imperiled. But Trump’s comments were largely ignored by the press. 

The emergency lights are flashing, and it’s likely to get worse. With the nation careening toward a democratic crisis, journalists can’t look away.