The national press has not questioned Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump nearly enough on his vague policy proposals and has done an equally poor job examining his business and personal record, according to veteran campaign reporters and historians who called the media's Trump campaign coverage “pathetic” and “fawning.”
As Trump solidifies his lead in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, historians and journalists who have covered several presidential elections tell Media Matters that Trump has so far managed to avoid facing the kind of intense press scrutiny usually devoted to a leading presidential candidate. While several experts said that some print outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have provided solid, in-depth reporting, their good reporting has largely been drowned out by television and cable news outlets, which are stuck in a ratings contest and constantly broadcasting Trump speeches, rallies, and interviews, allowing the candidate to dictate the conversation.
Some of the experts also note that television outlets are often too preoccupied with Trump's latest outrageous comment to do the necessary substanative reporting on him.
“It's pathetic,” said Eric Engberg, a former CBS News correspondent who covered numerous presidential campaigns. “There has not been a single, decent good biography question asked. The reason for that is that 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.”
He also said Trump has made it easier for future candidates to get away with offering little information unless the press changes its tactics: “Donald Trump has provided the map for the next guy who comes along. We are not seeing the end of this. He has shown every jerk in America how to make a run for president and not spend any money.”
Walter Shapiro, who covered nine presidential campaigns dating back to 1980 for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, and other outlets, said the Trump coverage is unprecedented.
“I find the coverage of Trump, the over-coverage, the fawning coverage of Trump on TV, allowing him to call in, to be one of the most shocking things of the last 30 or 40 years,” Shapiro said. “No one has ever gotten to have all of their campaign speeches broadcast unedited.”
He added, “There have been investigative pieces on Trump, but the pieces have not had as big an echo as some would hope and the saturation coverage of Trump has been so intense by the cable channels that nothing that an army of print journalists could do could combat that.”
Shapiro is among several veteran journalists who cited a lack of information on Trump's business record, which the candidate often touts as exemplary, but which is full of red flags for reporters.
“I have been surprised how little attention there has been given to the individual victims of the bankruptcies,” Shapiro said. “There is less of an appetite than I would like in examining his business career, and his personal ties -- who his friends are and how he treats his friends; the level of flagrant, unbelievable lying.”
Shapiro pointed to Trump's claim that he never called for a 45 percent tariff on goods from China, “even though The New York Times releases a tape in which he is saying that. This is the worst coverage of any candidate in my lifetime in terms of balance and finance."
“Everybody recognizes that Trump is not putting forward specific policies,” said Clark Hoyt, who covered campaigns for Knight-Ridder from 1968 to 1976 and later served as its Washington bureau chief. “Broadcasting and cable maybe aren't being as tough as they should be. I have questioned having him on by telephone, it's deferring to him in a way, letting him set ground rules that they don't for others. You do not see his demeanor and it is not the same as having him sit across from an interrogator.”
Hoyt, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his reporting on Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton's past struggles with depresssion, said the simple lack of probing questions when Trump is on air is very problematic.
“I don't fault people for having him on -- the question is, what are the questions? How tough are they? What is the follow-up?” Hoyt said. “Forcing him to answer in greater detail than he has so far. Questions about how he would pay for a wall, what his real health care plan is, so on. I have never seen anything like it, the lack of facts, and he continues espousing his way on through.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said in an interview with Media Matters, “The problem for the press, which Trump has exploited in a certain sense, is that given the speed of everyday news now and the number of comments that he makes, it is almost as if the press is chasing its tail to catch up on the things that he says.”
Citing the muckrakers of the early 20th century, whom Goodwin highlighted in her 2013 book The Bully Pulpit, she said the press was more able to influence voters with in-depth reporting: “They were able to write 10,000-word pieces in McClure's magazines, people would read it and talk about it and it became the common conversation. You would learn about what was happening in the world of those giant companies and those business communities.”
Goodwin, who has previously criticized the media's Trump coverage, said changes in the media landscape are not an excuse for today's reporters to avoid tough questions, which she admits are starting to come for Trump. But she also added, “It is so late in the process that these are the things that should have been done from the start.”
David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register columnist who covered presidential campaigns there for over 30 years before leaving in 2009, said part of the problem was not treating Trump as a serious candidate in the beginning.
“They thought he was a celebrity and the media didn't treat it seriously,” Yepsen said. “That kind of coverage of Trump is eclipsed by the celebrity stuff or by his outrage. I agree it has not been what it should have been given that he now has the chance to be the Republican nominee -- the scrutiny of his personal life, the scrutiny of his issues, what's he worth?”
Asked for specific questions he would direct to the candidate, Yepsen said, “I think it is the whole package: What are your policy proposals? What do you want to do with this? Trump has to put some numbers on paper, too.”
Adam Clymer, who covered politics for The New York Times for nearly three decades, said the press focuses too much on the outrage of the moment and the reaction to it, and not enough on demanding specifics.
“The most serious shortcoming -- he tosses off that everybody will have health insurance, but he doesn't explain why,” Clymer said. “This is not a heavy policy-oriented campaign on anybody in the Republican Party, but the front-runner has a singular responsibility for saying what he's going to do and how he's going to accomplish it.”
He later added, “What is especially lacking is scrubbing his proposals. The outrageous things he says are getting more coverage than they deserve and the details of such policy proposals are getting less coverage than he deserves.”
Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Associated Press campaign reporter who covered every general election presidential campaign between 1960 and 2000, said many reporters may be so surprised and unprepared for Trump's approach that they are not quick to react.
“His M.O. is he just that he doesn't answer them and calls you names,” Mears said. “You have an electorate that is not paying attention, doesn't care and does not mind. He has sound bites, he will cut taxes a lot, he's got a list of things he says he's going to do but he can't.”
But Mears said the press should not put up with it: “He's getting by with a lot of stuff that no candidate should get by with. All you get is hot air and blowback and it's all a rebuttal with him. He's getting away with it.”
Doyle McManus, former Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief and currently a columnist for the paper, agreed.
“When you seek specific policies and plans for Donald Trump, you are seeking blood from a stone, it is not there,” he said, later adding, “So the time is right for a round of deeper stories on his background and on the policies he would propose as president.”
Others who have covered Trump's business career going back decades agree that little has been offered about how he has handled real estate, casinos, and even golf courses with his name attached. A recent string of stories has highlighted the improper handling of Trump University, but most of his non-political past remains a mystery.
“There's a lot to look at with his background, his hiring of undocumented Polish workers for Trump Tower, and so far he has kind of floated above the fray,” said Gwenda Blair, the author of two books on Trump and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. “It would be good to get at [his] tax returns out there, and the excuse that they are being audited doesn't seem to be an excuse at all.”
She added, “His earlier career in real estate in New York is a rough and tumble world. There is a lot of sketchy things that occurred there and nobody has really currently gone back over that with the kind of online digging tools that would be available now.”
“What were his relationships to labor unions and union bosses is a big area to be looked into,” Blair said. “How did he manage to avoid having any construction strikes go on when other developers were plagued with strikes? What's his relationship to the concrete industry? What are his relationships with union bosses in Atlantic City?”
Blair cited an issue she raised in a book: that Trump intervened in his father's will after his 1999 death, changing the document so children of Trump's brother Fred, who died in 1981, received no inheritance.
“Why were his brother's children cut out of Donald's father's will?” she asked. “Which Donald has acknowledged he helped to draw up.”
She also said the Trump Organization canceled health insurance that the children had been receiving.
“Some of his business failures have been reasonably reported,” said Wayne Barrett, who wrote a 1992 book on Trump and covered him for The Village Voice for decades. Barrett said issues such as Trump's “mob associations, probably 25 named in my book,” haven't been covered, adding that “nobody would finance him anymore since 1991, no bank would finance him on a significant finance deal.”
Mears said that “one of the problems on his business background is that it's done through closely held companies that are not public companies. That buys an immense amount of privacy. The one area I would like to see more done on is his business bankruptcy that he blows a lot on. Bankruptcy records are public records -- do more on them and see what is involved.”
Goodwin said that historically, candidate backgrounds and past activities have been important elements of presidential coverage.
“It's not simply a matter of how many positions somebody has held; it's how they dealt with the problems in those positions,” she said. “What kind of a leader was he in his business? What kind of practices did he exercise when he was in that position?”
She cited James Buchanan, who held many elective offices but was a failure as president, while Abraham Lincoln, who served only in a state legislature and had one term in Congress, was considered among the greatest presidents in U.S. history.
“We can look at past leaders and see they had these qualities, being able to communicate, surround yourself with good people, and being able to admit when you're wrong,” Goodwin said. “What kind of a leader was he in that business world? Within his own company? Did he exercise leadership in the city? What kind of people did he have around him? I don't know any of that.”