In the Age of Trump, the press face a paradox: the president-elect routinely does things that, coming from the president, should be news -- from tweeting insults at celebrities to telling bald-faced lies to holding outrageous press conferences next to stacks of blank paper. But when they cover these events, journalists can find themselves not holding the president-elect accountable but rather playing into the spectacle, while other news gets lost in the shuffle.
What is the media to do? Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief of Current Affairs, argues that while the press can't control what the president does, and they certainly can't ignore him, there are specific ways they can do their jobs better.
Nuages (Clouds) by James Carter
BOB GARFIELD: So we’ve heard advice from George Lakoff on how to handle tweets but how should we view the rest of Trump’s stunts and diversions? And how should we report on them? Well, obviously, first we must consider what drives them, not just individually but, as Lakoff advises, systemically.
PRESIDENT-ELECT TRUMP: It’s a very simple formula in entertainment and television. If you get good ratings, and these aren’t good, these are monster, then you’re gonna be in all the time, even if you have nothing to say.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief of the progressive publication Current Affairs.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Because he has suggested that this has been part of his sales strategy, building this persona, I do think there's reason to believe that a certain amount of it is put on deliberately, that he plays up the outrageousness.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s just talk about his claim earlier this week that the inauguration’s gonna be so great, great, great that you can’t even buy a dress in Washington, DC; they’re all sold out. Now, whether or not there is a sufficient supply of ball gowns is, obviously, of no significance to anybody, but the fact that [LAUGHS] the president-elect simply invents stuff –
NATHAN ROBINSON: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: - isn’t that, in and of itself, newsworthy?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, it would be in a different era, but now we’re in the Trump Era and we have to distinguish between the time that we spend trying to make people understand the lies that are most significant.
BOB GARFIELD: What you're describing is triage, devoting the limited resources to the cardiac cases first and letting the people suffering with just a broken ankle sit in pain in the waiting room. How do you make that call in the heat of the moment?
NATHAN ROBINSON: First, I think it has to be a, a commitment to understanding what the issues that matter are, understanding that if climate change is something that is threatening human civilization, it has to dominate what we talk about every day and then a commitment on journalists to make sure that in their work they are prioritizing what their mission is.
The thing we need to understand is we think if he is embarrassing himself he must care, but he really doesn't care. The people who did the Comedy Central roast of him a couple years back, the comedians who were writing the material said it was weird that he didn't actually mind being embarrassed and humiliated, as long as people were watching him and nothing else.
BOB GARFIELD: He will not directly answer any question. It almost sounds as if you’re suggesting that we don't bother with a Trump press conference at all.
NATHAN ROBINSON: I don't think you can totally ignore the president's press conferences. I think this is really a matter of allocating your time and resources carefully, ‘cause he’s still going to be the president tomorrow, he’s still going to be the president the day after that and he's going to be exactly the same every single day.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I, I want to come back to something you mentioned earlier, and that is the fact that we’re just in a different reality and that hate speech, racism, sexual assault, all of which would have been career enders for any previous president of the United States, just doesn't seem to matter. In Trump World, where does the line where we have to pay attention begin? Is it murder, treason? What rises to the level of this triage attention that we've been discussing?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, it's ordering your priorities carefully by those things that have the most human consequence. So I think the sexual assault allegations against Trump - that kind of disappeared from the press. I actually think that should come back because it's an example of something that actually hurts real people. Trump’s theft from his contractors and workers - that is something that was real and material. So if you just start asking the right questions, which is, who’s hurt here, what is the consequence, then I think you can begin to put things in an order of priority and assign coverage accordingly.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the proxies for journalists who can't get the goods on the politician that they mistrust is to catch them in some sort of naked hypocrisy. You think it doesn't really, you know, move the ball forward.
NATHAN ROBINSON: Yeah, absolutely, I think those kinds of issues, in terms of that triage question, they are low on the list of priorities. There’s going to be a lot of this around building the wall, I think, where we go, well, see, look, Trump isn’t actually building the wall. Well, we don't want to goad Trump into building the wall, so we should try and focus on those things that we care about, rather than Trump's failure to embody what he says he believes.
BOB GARFIELD: So as part of the triage process, one big area that, that you would remove from the coronaries and throw in with the sprained ankles is fact checking. Fact checking?
NATHAN ROBINSON: Well, I'm not opposed to fact checking. It's more an implication that if you fact check Trump and you prove him wrong you’ve somehow got him. You've also got to be really, really careful because sometimes there is more of a core to what he says than fact checkers let on because they’re checking the literal, precise truth of the statement and ignoring some of the underlying truth. So Trump said Obamacare is raising your premiums 60, 70, 80%. Well, then the fact checkers come in and they say, well, actually, it's only an average of 9%. Some premiums may rise to 60% but not 80%. Yeah, you get that he's wrong but you also haven't really countered the underlying point that he's trying to make. And I think this was a real failure, was a belief that you - by holding him accountable on the precision of his statistics, rather than forming effective counter narratives to the underlying points he makes that have some emotional truth and some factual truth to them, that you could be effective.
BOB GARFIELD: In essence, you’re saying discount the fact that he is a liar. That's been established, so let's not get bogged down in checking those facts because we will just spin our wheels endlessly for four years. That seems like such a surrender, such an abrogation of our fundamental responsibility as journalists to truth or at least the facts.
NATHAN ROBINSON: No, I'm not saying do that, what I'm saying is our first duty is not necessarily to point out whether Trump is telling the truth or not because then we’ll end up writing articles that are on the subject of how many dresses in Washington are actually still available.
BOB GARFIELD: Which people did.
NATHAN ROBINSON: If – right. I mean, yeah, you got to the truth but I think that makes clear that truth is one of your duties. Journalists have other duties, as well, to make sure that people are informed on matters of substance, rather than just being informed that their president is a liar. We have to have a sense of what creates a hierarchy of significance among lies that leads us to draw attention to particular ones versus other ones. You can’t just be neutral on what matters and what's important. You really are going to be flailing for four years, just running this way and that, trying to fact check everything, even though it's impossible, trying to call out his 100 character flaws. Unless you have a sense of these are the principles that matter, you know, healthcare matters because it hurts people, climate change matters because it hurts people, you don't really have a way to coherently counter Trump as a media organization.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathan, thank you. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go resume the fetal position and withdraw.
NATHAN ROBINSON: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I'll join you there.
BOB GARFIELD: Nathan Robinson is editor-in-chief of current affairs.org and author of the upcoming book, Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity, which will be released - on Inauguration Day.