Before, during, and after President Donald Trump’s speech last night to a joint session of Congress, political journalists and pundits shamelessly prioritized the speech’s optics over its content. Focusing on the president’s “tone,” they rushed to declare that Trump had finally “pivoted,” giving a “presidential” speech.
That obsession with style over substance drew swift criticism from other commentators. And Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza isn’t happy that pundits are being called out for saying Trump did an awesome job:
These are dumb questions. Of course Trump can be praised for “delivering a good speech.” In fact, you don’t need to be a savvy pundit or political journalist to watch the speech and decide whether the speech is good!
And that’s the problem. As Greg Sargent suggests, the real question is whether journalists are actually giving their audience useful information when they obsess over the president’s tone instead of the content of his speech.
Do readers and viewers learn anything, for example, when they see Cillizza praising Trump for giving the best speech of his political life and complaining on cable news that “the worst thing, I think, for our politics is this assumption, and you see it over and over again in a speech like this, is that Donald Trump can do nothing good and nothing can be accomplished while Donald Trump is president”? (Really, that’s the absolute worst thing Cillizza can think of that can happen to our politics?)
Americans need journalists to dig into whether anything Trump said last night could possibly be converted to policy (nope). They need journalists to interrogate Trump’s claims and determine whether they were true (they weren’t). They need journalists to put Trump’s speech into the context of his actions and explain whether he’s needlessly fearmongering about immigrant communities (my god, yes).
And it’s helpful to learn that even the White House is shocked at how eager the press has been to praise Trump’s speech:
Endless discussion of the optics of Trump’s speech, on the other hand, is entirely useless. There is no value in providing the “winners and losers” from last night in a way that treats Trump’s mendacity as a throwaway line.
Of course, Cillizza’s entire oeuvre is based on the concept that he is a savvy pundit who tells people what they really need to know about politics based on a surface-level, optics-first approach.
While he’s certainly one of the worst examples of the genre, he’s not alone -- at times, cable news seems to exist solely so Mark Halperin and Joe Scarborough and Gloria Borger and David Gergen and their ilk can pontificate about nonsense. They present value judgments and opinion dressed up as koans of wisdom.
At best, content like this is ephemeral garbage that lasts a news cycle and is forgotten, but provides traffic that supports the work of actual reporters.
At worst, this sort of fact-free punditry creates false narratives that can alter the public’s perception of political figures (see: the press’s obsession with Hillary Clinton’s emails during the 2016 election cycle, which paved the way for Trump’s election).
President Trump’s first weeks have been a shitshow of incompetence and extremism. The American public needs more from the press than meaningless dreck.