For the mainstream media, proper White House coverage calls for neutral White House language, no matter who resides therein. But in this nontraditional presidency, traditional news copy sometimes seems to be straining to reflect reality.
Jay Rosen, founder of the PressThink blog, says that the press's language must change, saying that seemingly innocuous phrases such as “foreign policy” or Trump’s “ learning curve” are inherently unfit to capture the current presidency. He and Brooke discuss the importance of creative reporting and why too much of a focus on White House "palace intrigue" may provide more distraction than illumination.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. So we have seen, once again, that the White House cannot stick to a story because there is no unitary White House. There are a bunch of senior officials and spokespeople, and then there's Trump. And yet, we, the media, still reach for that trusty phrase.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The White House says today’s move…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The White House says it’s confident the House…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The White House says the commission will be tasked with investigating voter fraud.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For the mainstream media, White House coverage calls for neutral White House language, no matter who resides therein. But perhaps the old lexicon just can't apply to this new kind of presidency. For instance, see if you can spot an outdated phrase in this clip.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But first, we take a look at the foreign policy accomplishments of and setbacks during the first 100 days of the Trump administration.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour, with a perfectly normal intro into the night’s news.
Jay Rosen, NYU journalism professor and author of the PressThink blog, says that normal is the problem. Jay, welcome back to OTM.
JAY ROSEN: Thank you so much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So “foreign policy accomplishments and setbacks” seems pretty innocuous but you cringed at it.
JAY ROSEN: I did because the word “policy” [LAUGHS] connotes a position that reflects convictions and I don’t think his positions came out of any deep reflections. And I also don’t think he holds very fast of them. He just says stuff. So this habitual language, which seems pretty harmless and standard and routine, is actually deceptive. Yeah, I don't think Donald Trump has any deep thoughts or even superficial thoughts about America's role in the world. He has thoughts about Donald Trump’s role in the Trump saga.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Recently, we spoke a little bit about the terminology around covering his tax proposal, so to speak, that calling it tax reform is clearly not accurate. But you’re saying calling it a tax plan at all is also inaccurate.
JAY ROSEN: I like Andrew Sorkin's description. He said, this belongs on a cocktail napkin. And if you listen carefully to his interview with John Dickerson, it was pretty clear he didn't understand the weight of what he was saying. It’s not just that he didn’t know the details. He didn't know the outline. [LAUGHS] And that embarrasses us so much, including the journalists who have to report on it, that I think they change it into something that's a little bit more acceptable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For instance, last month a New York Times headline stated [LAUGHS] that a steep “learning curve” leads to policy reversals.
JAY ROSEN: Mm, I notice this tendency among journalists to use this word “learning” to mean not necessarily an education but a discovery. So they’ll say, he’s learning that it's not so easy to manipulate Congress or he's learning that the president has restraints on his powers, right? And it's true that events are showing him that, but that's different than learning –
- ‘cause when you learn, you change your behavior, and we don't see that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You even get a little bugged when you read in a newspaper that the White House said or according to the White House.
JAY ROSEN: Yes. The people who speak for the president can't speak for the president ‘cause they actually have no idea what he meant and can’t explain what he just proclaimed. Then the whole idea that there is a White House apparatus falls apart, and yet, to refer to the “White House” automatically is like one of the most natural reflexes there is in White House reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us to the big question that you address in your series of tweets [LAUGHS] about this language, that there is a way that we report on the White House, there is a lexicon. And what's the harm in applying it to Trump?
JAY ROSEN: The harm is simply being inaccurate.
Another point here is that you can't sit around [LAUGHS] and invent a new language if you have a deadline in 30 minutes. You have to reach for what you already have. It has to be routinized. But in the routinization of language, there's also the routinization of thought. And that is what's becoming problematic. The difference between this White House and all previous White Houses [LAUGHS] in the modern era is extreme.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what would a more accurate language say?
JAY ROSEN: Judy Woodruff can simply say, does Donald Trump even have a foreign policy? We’ll tackle that next.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you didn’t mention the other value of having a standard language. It insulates you from charges of bias.
JAY ROSEN: True. I think it's really important for journalists to come to grips with an uncomfortable fact that sometimes their duty to accuracy and truthful description is in conflict with their wish to avoid criticism. And if they recognized the conflict more, thought about it more carefully, they might make better choices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, within the confines of normal news language, you believe they are still better ways to communicate the reality of the political moment, and you point to Chuck Todd's analysis. Let’s hear a little of that.
CHUCK TODD/NBC: It seems like if any other president said there was a chance of a major, major conflict with a nuclear power, there’d be wall-to-wall coverage, special reports. My colleague Lester Holt would already be flying to Seoul. But, let’s face it, we’ve been conditioned to discount the president’s words already, and that’s a big deal too.
JAY ROSEN: He pointed out there are consequences to Trump’s way of talking. We’re already starting to discount what the president says as probably unreliable, and that is an amazing thing because we've always tried to see through the president’s spin and –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All presidents lie.
JAY ROSEN: All presidents lie and they propagandize us, but I don't think we've ever been in a situation where it makes more sense to assume that what the president says is based on zero knowledge or that it’s false or crazy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do White House reporters deal with this situation?
JAY ROSEN: Journalists think of themselves as professional skeptics, but they haven't looked at their own language and seen how it's too optimistic, it's too credulous. We’re in an extreme situation here, where the president is demonstrating that he’s unprepared for the job. Journalists have to realize that they're being called to an even deeper skepticism. They have to go back to an identity they all have, which is writers, picking the words that fit the situation, not just plugging in prefab concepts, return to their roots as wordsmiths to cope with a new reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggest, in a post on PressThink, that they also need to guard themselves against manipulation. You were criticizing an article by Politico about the playground that is really the Trump administration's relationship with the press. As you were going through the Politico piece, you pulled out this quote from a reporter who said, “If you’re doing anything involving any sort of palace intrigue they are crazy cooperative, but if you have any sort of legitimate question, if you need a yes or no answer on policy, they’re impossible.”
JAY ROSEN: What is the reason we have these reporters in the White House? It's to enable the public to understand what the people in power are doing. And that cannot happen if the people in power don't speak truthfully and let us in on their plans. Do any of these juicy stories about palace intrigue and infighting in the White House help us understand what the people in power plan to do? That's the question. And the fact that the White House press is having a ball because they have so many sources dishing dirt on one another and he cares deeply about how he’s portrayed on CNN doesn’t matter that much in the larger politics of this, which is an attempt to break off part of the public and keep it within an information loop that the mainstream media doesn't even enter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you look at a Gallup poll that you have in your post, you can see that in 2015 Democrats trusted the press by about 51% and Republicans by only 14%. So when he hates on the press, he’s going it for the benefit of his base.
JAY ROSEN: And part of his purpose there is to make sure that the news source they accept about Trump is Trump. If the press can't find a way into that circle, then it really doesn't matter what a ball they're having as they report on this playground of a White House.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay, thank you very much.
JAY ROSEN: You are so welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jay Rosen teaches journalism at NYU and writes the blog, PressThink.