The Challenge of Covering Trump

Even though the press coverage of Trump frustrates me at times, I also recognize and believe that Trump poses unique challenges to the press, challenges that aren’t easy to overcome. Ideally, I should take the time to write a more organized post, listing and describing some of these challenges. However, I just saw a tweet that made me think of one of these challenges, and I want to comment on this before I forget. Here’s the tweet:

Here’s the challenge I see: Trump and his administration not only lie a lot, but the nature of their lies seems egregious in a unique way, making things up, including falsely accusing Democrats and the press. Others have remarked the lies resemble the type found in autocracies. To me, this warrants treating Trump in a different way from other presidents, as I don’t believe other presidents have egregiously crossed a line. However, I believe doing this would make journalists incredibly squeamish, regardless if this is justified. Why? Because treating Trump differently, as if his lying makes him different, makes him more like a dictator than a POTUS, would make them feel like hyperbolic partisans. (Read: unreasonable individuals incapable of being fair or objective.) No journalists wants to act in a way that makes them appear like these people. Trump supporters would accuse them of bias, and these journalists would feel totally defenseless against these charges. They could try to justify their position, but that justification would essentially be a “but his lies are different” argument, which is essentially the type of thing that partisan extremists would say. “But this time, Trump is really different! We’re really being fair and objective,” they might say, but I suspect journalists would know this would sound feeble and unpersuasive.

For these reasons (and maybe others), journalists gravitate back towards an approach that treats Trump like previous presidents. That is, they try to forget about how egregious the lies are, how often they occur, moving them closer to a place where they give the benefit of the doubt to Trump. I feel like the following tweet supports this, at least to some degree:

I feel like a smart journalist like Haberman–who has known Trump for a long time–can only be surprised if she subconsciously minimizes and attempts to forget that Trump has zero credibility and consistently behaves with bad faith. If journalists knew a colleague, stockbroker, or friend who behaved like Trump, there would be no surprise at the effectiveness of the lies because the lies wouldn’t be effective. But journalists covering Trump is a different domain than the interactions that journalists have with others outside of their work. The rules regarding earning the trust of the public, the professional standards and professional pride–all good things–creates a barrier to covering someone like Trump, a shameless liar, conspiracy theorist, con man. I’m not sure about the journalists should respond, but I’ll try to propose suggestions later.

6 thoughts on “The Challenge of Covering Trump

  1. More On Why Covering Trump is So Difficult

    I think I’ve gotten a clearer idea on why journalists have such difficulty covering Trump. Let me start by sharing some of my recent experiences on twitter: namely, seeing the way smart people, on the left and right, slip into conspiracy thinking. Seeing that makes me realize that the same thing could happen to me. If people who are smarter than me can succumb to conspiracy thinking, then certainly I could, too, right? Here’s another thing: When people succumb to conspiracy thinking, are they aware this is happening? I highly doubt that. I suspect they think they believe in the truth, and they’re just seeing the truth. How do I know I’m not doing the same thing? How does anyone know?

    A Mental Warning System That Prevents Irrational Thinking

    To answer that, I have to first describe a feature of the way our mind works. My sense is that most people have a red-flagging mechanism in their minds, relating to conspiracy thinking or irrational thinking in general. When one starts constructing an explanation that heads towards something irrational, these mental red flags start popping up. Most people heed these flags, stop, and dismiss these thoughts. If they don’t, it can create discomfort, anxiety and a sense of instability and insecurity. The person can feel like they’re going crazy.

    I suspect this is what’s happening with journalists. To believe that Trump is an authoritarian, attempting to erode or smash the rule of law and other safeguards against a despot seems. Writing this–using words like “despot”–raises red flags for me. One has push through the red flags to continue thinking this way, following where train of thoughts lead. But that is dangerous because once one starts doing this, one weakens the primary means of avoiding irrational thinking. If one goes too far, accepting and even embracing irrational ideas and thinking, one can start losing the ability to think rationally and perceive the world in rational way.

    So are the journalists right to avoid thinking of Trump as a budding autocrat? Are all those thinking of him that way succumbing to conspiracy thinking? No, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. But how do we know? How does one know that Trump is actually a budding autocrat, or if one is just embracing a conspiracy theory?

    When Overriding the Warning System is Approprite

    Here are my thoughts on that. Words like “despot” and “authoritarian” serve as triggers to the warning system. My sense is that red flags will appear (in the context we’re talking about) regardless if there is a rationally good reason for using those words or not. That is, sound thinking and compelling evidence could justify describing a politician that way.

    But how does one know that one is thinking reasonably? Once again, the conspiracy theorist probably believes their thinking is sound, too. I have two ways to address this problem:

    1. Present your thoughts to other reasonable people. Do they agree or not? Additionally, find others with different political views and opinions. They don’t have to agree with all of your conclusions, but only acknowledge that your thinking is sound. (Ideally, if you could find a ideologically diverse group, committed to a process that helped arrive at accurate information, that would be even better.)

    2. Demand more evidence, more compelling arguments before accepting ideas and explanations that raise a lot of mental red flags. This should offer more protection against falling down a slippery slope.


    I think the points above suggest a way that journalist can cover Trump more accurately and effectively. Journalists shouldn’t automatically reject an idea, a line of thinking, a way of viewing a situation just because mental alarm bells go off. When that occurs, journalists can raise the barriers to accepting those ideas. And if they find enough evidence and can construct enough reasonable arguments, that other rational people with different politics find sound, if not persuasive, then they should take step over that hurdle and follow the facts where they lead.


    Other ways to safeguard against sliding into conspiracy thinking:

    1. Your sense of wariness and vigilance should rise in direct proportion to your level of confidence in a theory, narrative, etc. Be wary of absolute certainty about your narratives/theories. This sensation should raise alarm bells, and if it doesn’t, that in itself should constitute a red flag. This doesn’t mean that every time you feel really confident about a theory or position, that this confidence isn’t justified–that the theory or position isn’t correct. But the more certain your are, the more cautious you should be.

    2. Expose yourself to other narratives, theories, etc. and seek to understand them. This is a way to keep from your thinking calcifying. What helps is if you recognize that the theory or narrative you favor could be wrong, for a lack of a better word.

    3. Force yourself to construct an alternative, non-conspiratorial theory/narrative that is plausible.

    4. Look for facts that weaken the conspiracy theory.

  2. Here’s a recent example.

    Think of what he’s saying and the reasonable conclusions one could draw from this. Even though I strongly oppose Trump, I can feel a significant level of cognitive tension within myself. Trump seems to not only not understand our system of government or basic principles like the rule of law, but he doesn’t seem to be aware that his remarks will convey this to the public. That is, he doesn’t think he’s saying anything problematic or wrong. Again, even as someone who strongly opposes Trump, it is uncomfortable to hold this thought, and accept it. I can easily see people wanting to look away or move on, not wanting to fully acknowledge what this means.

    In a bizarre way, I think this has provided protection for Trump. There’s almost an emperor-has-no-clothes dynamic. I feel like we need a the-Emperor-has-no-clothes moment to break through.

  3. Someone Who Might Be Ignoring the Internal Warning System

    Norm Ornstein is a guy I respect, and a large part of that respect stems from my impression that he was a relatively moderate, non-partisan individual. I haven’t dramatically changed my impression of him, but he seems to letting himself break through barriers that keep a person’s speech reasonable. Here’s the type of thing I’ve been hearing from him a lot lately:

    He’s allowing himself to call these people names, in a rather dramatic fashion. I’m a little concerned that if he keeps allowing himself to do this, he’s going to lose the ability to think and express himself in reasonable ways.

    And just to be clear: I don’t mean to stand in judgment of him or act as him I’m above this sort of thing. If I’m honest with myself, the way I express my opinions about Trump is a concern–I could be slipping into a place where I can no longer discern what is reasonable from what is unreasonable. If I haven’t already done this, I think there are enough signs that I should be very wary of this.

    By the way, a guy who seems to be further on down this path (to the point where I’ve dropped him off my list) is Lawrence Tribe, a rather well-respected law professor, if I’m not mistaken. (Harvard?) I kinda think he’s gone down the rabbit hole. For example, he seems to embrace conspiracy theories. I really hope Ornstein doesn’t head down that way.

    I should also say that I really think Ornstein’s disgust and outrage is justified. But I worry based on the way he’s expressing himself.

  4. Mitchell, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this op-ed:

    I think the coverage needs to be different, but Sullivan seems to be calling for violating a more objective approach, where reporters don’t editorialize. I’m actually more sympathetic to her view. I think I can guess what you’d say, but I wonder if the nature of the Trump presidency would alter your normal position.

  5. The following op-ed examines remarks criticism of the remarks made by NYT journalist (Doug McNeil) in an interview. Here are some of his remarks:

    We completely blew it for the first two months of our response. We were in a headless-chicken phase, and yes, it’s the president’s fault, it is not China’s fault. The head of the Chinese CDC was on the phone to Robert Redfield on Jan. 1, again on Jan. 8, and the two agencies were talking on Jan. 19. The Chinese had a test on Jan. 13; the Germans had a test on Jan. 16. We fiddled around for two months, we had a test on March 5 and it didn’t work. We didn’t have 10,000 people tested until March 15. So we lost two months there, and that was because of incompetent leadership at the CDC, I’m sorry to say — it’s a great agency, but it’s incompetently led, and I think Dr. Redfield should resign. And suppression from the top: I mean, the real coverup was the person in this country who was saying, you know, “This is not an important virus, the flu is worse, it’s all going to go away, it’s nothing.” And that encouraged everybody around him to say, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, it’s nothing.” I had the same problem at the Times — I was trying to convince my editors, “This is really bad; this is a pandemic.” It took a while to get them, it took a while to get anybody to believe this. … Getting rid of Alex Azar was a mistake — he was actually leading a dramatic response and then … in February he was replaced with Mike Pence, who’s a sycophant.

    The op-ed offers how the NYT editors would have corrected some of McNeil’s responses:

    Had McNeil attempted to write in a New York Times story that “we blew it,” his editors might have inserted: As coronavirus wended its way around the world, the Trump administration missed several critical opportunities to blunt its impact in America, according to interviews with 56 experts and current and former administration officials.

    Had McNeil attempted to write that the CDC was “incompetently led,” his editors would have inserted: Decisions reached by Dr. Redfield over several weeks in January and February have drawn criticism from public health experts, who point to a slow-footed response that resulted in unnecessary deaths across the country.

    Had McNeil attempted to write that Pence is a “sycophant,” his editors would have inserted: The White House swapped Azar for Pence, a leader more attuned to the president’s preferences and sensibilities, not to mention his taste for official praise.

    My first reaction was to lean towards the NYT editors. Their version takes out more judgmental language. But a few seconds later, I thought of the response readers would have these revisions–would most arrive at McNeil’s conclusion. And assuming they didn’t, would their impression be more or less accurate? Is the answer to this really a matter of dispute–that is, would there be no consensus among reasonable, fair-minded individuals? Is McNeil’s judgments close calls?

    If overwhelming evidence supports his characterizations, while very little evidence supports the opposite, would more neutral language function more like a euphemism and mislead the public? I tend to think this is the case.

    But my sense is that for the NYT editors, McNeil’s comments aren’t problematic because of accuracy or subjectivity per se. Rather the problem is that his comments create the impression he–and by extension the NYT–are not fair and therefore not trustworthy. I think this is a legitimate concern. But if the method of creating the impression of fairness actually does a poorer job of informing the public, there’s something really wrong going on.

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