The political press is taking the exact wrong approach to covering the Trump White House
Could it be that we — and, by “we,” I mean those of us in all forms of the media — have taken the completely wrong approach to covering the Trump administration? Have we — reporters and editors, pundits and commentators, Tweeters and Instagrammers — made the critical mistake trying to fit our daily flood of exasperating news into the paradigms of yesteryear — those neat column inches and broadcast minutes — which once served us in the past?
I think so. And, in the process, we’ve failed to understand or properly communicate to the public what could be called Trump’s “big-picture strategy.”
Here’s the rub: According to Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, there is none. “I think we should resist the term ‘strategy’ for Trump’s egotistic maneuvering,” Rosen wrote in a perceptive post for PressThink, a project of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU. “There is no strategy.”
As Rosen described in a recent phone interview, instead of maintaining an overarching political strategy or policy agenda, Trump is engaged in a never-ending, loosely-associated series of fabricated grievances that track more with societal and cultural change than they do with actual policy or political concerns.
“A permanent culture war is really the meter and method of his presidency,” Rosen told me. “This culture war is the Republican Party now and that is what holds it together. That fact has been installed in the White House. That’s what motivates and animates Trump.”
If Rosen is as accurate as I believe him to be, it’s easy to understand why the media hasn’t caught on. Traditional and normative coverage of the White House is predicated on long-standing and historic practices, such as assuming that whoever is president attempts to speak for all Americans, doesn’t lie (well, not overtly or often), and responds to the centering gravitational pull of public morality and political opinion.
Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury imagines a Trump candidacy back in 1999. And nails it.
You're sheep!” pic.twitter.com/XQUg9pvss8
— Open Culture (@openculture) September 10, 2016
But this administration is neither traditional, nor normative. In fact, Trump eschews all that is rational about being president, drawing ever more personal popularity from his sycophants for being an outlier to Washington culture, especially as it’s reflected in the mainstream media.
From my days toiling in dead-tree newsrooms, I know that tradition-bound journalists follow stories in staccato bursts, often flitting like moths around campfires to sensational, controversial, and personal stories in hopes of capturing the attention of a spasmodic public.
Trump, who in his formative years developed a boundless media fixation with New York’s tabloid media wars, exploits this existential weakness in news reporting to keep his ardent supporters, estimated to fluctuate between 30-40 percent of all Americans, entertained by and in lockstep agreement with whatever his nonsense messaging of the day happens to be.
In fact, this week’s “nonsense messaging” is very instructive. After a handful of days in which Trump legal adviser Rudy Giuliani made a series of television appearances that were deemed to be all but disastrous to the White House’s interests, an unflappable Giuliani told the Washington Post, “Everybody’s reacting to us now, and I feel good about that because that’s what I came in to do.”
Posturing in the media isn’t a strategy or an effective approach to governing. But, again, Trump isn’t serious about governing; he’s far more eager to play to an adoring audience and to hell with what most Americans or the rest of the world thinks. “He’s not attempting to persuade a majority of the country to his side,” Rosen told me. “He’s not engaging in normal persuasion tactics for which approval ratings and polling are the measure of that. He’s trying to cement a psychological bond with his core supporters that can’t be broken.”
That’s the scary part. If a significant number of Americans blindly support and empower Trump, then there will never be a need for him to modulate his outrageous behavior. Facts will never matter. Lying is rewarded, or at minimum, unpunished.
Worse of all, from the perspective of this tradition-bound journalist, trust between the news media and the public is irreparably damaged in this current arrangement. Indeed, any attempt to expose the hypocrisy, mendacity, and overall incompetence of the administration is blithely dismissed as “fake news” by those invested in Trump’s personality.
There is no White House, really. Not as that term was conventionally defined. It's just Trump… and people who work in the building. Journalists keep using the words, of course, "the White House," but their own reporting shows there is no referent there. The metonymy broke. https://t.co/c4aLziVRo4
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) March 31, 2018
For all these reasons, Rosen argues, the media must “stop using the normal language of reporting” and find a way to persuade the public with a vocabulary that matches the strength and audacity of the White House.
In fact, he told me he’s stopped referring to the White House as a political entity. “The institution is gone,” he said. “The whole apparatus and policy machinery of the White House is gone. Instead what you have is whatever is going on between Trump and his television, whatever he’s watching and reacting to on television is the reality of his administration. [Reporters] need to find a language for talking about that. And to keep talking about that until it sinks in.”
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) May 8, 2018