Trump and the Media: Truly Unbelievable or Unbelievably True?
No president in recent memory has had a more acrimonious relationship with the media than President Donald Trump.
Trump frequently condemned, on Twitter and at press conferences, “fake news.” Twitter often put disclaimers on the President’s accusations of election fraud, and mainstream media depicted him as spreading lies and causing misfortune.
Was the media unfair to Trump? Was Trump unfair to the media?
Hamodia spoke with a conservative political science professor and a liberal journalism professor about their views on the state of political journalism during the past four years and going forward.
Much of our discussions focused on The Associated Press, the leading wire service, whose coverage drives the news cycle. The AP did not respond to multiple requests by Hamodia to make one of its own editors available for an interview.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of political science at Sarah Lawrence College, and a faculty fellow with New York University’s Center for Advanced Social Science Research. He is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Professor Abrams has been widely published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The American Interest, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He has an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, and is an alumnus of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government Program on Inequality and Social Policy. He received his A.B. in political science and sociology from Stanford University.
As one administration transitions to the next, we’d like to look back on the past four years. What do you have to say about the media coverage of Trump?
Lots of people liked him; he did an awful lot for this country. And as much as I did not like a lot of his policies, and I thought he didn’t bring dignity to the office — and to me, that was the big issue — there was quite a bit he did quite well. And if you take a look at what he did in the Middle East with Israel, if you take a look at what he said about identity politics, and the nonsense that I deal with on a regular basis, the woke campuses and this political correctness culture that has gone completely amok and is creating havoc all around the country and now the world — he had a lot to say about that that was right. The problem is that if you read most news stories, you would never know that. It was one constant narrative that this is a terrible president who needs to go. That’s really not the role of The New York Times. They can certainly publish ample pieces that say that, but they should be covering him holistically. And they didn’t. Most newspapers and news sources failed to do that. And that’s a problem.
Let’s assume that you are a newspaper reporter or editor, and you believe that a president is saying things that are incorrect or making allegations without evidence — one particular recent prominent example is the election fraud. How should a newspaper or newswire go about covering this?
I want to give you an example, from an Associated Press article on December 8, 2020. The headline is: “A New Movement: Trump’s False Claims Take Hold in States.”
The lede reads, “President Donald Trump’s campaign to subvert the will of voters and reverse his reelection loss to Democrat Joe Biden is taking hold among state and local Republicans even as it marches toward imminent failure — a demonstration of Trump’s power to bend the GOP to his will even as he leaves office.”
Let me respond with two things. First, Trump is the head of an administration. The White House operates through a very large bureaucracy; there are many people who execute ideas. One of the mistakes the press is regularly making is its fixation on the man himself, the fixation on what we call “candidate-centered campaigning,” the idea that it’s all only about him. His administration has done a lot. When they’ve done these peace deals, for instance, he’s not negotiating one-on-one. His administration is bigger than just him. And it is important to cover the role of the administration, holistically, which the media has failed to do.
As for the December 8 headline, I have no problem with people covering and pointing out that there’s a systemic failure, in many cases, for him to tell the truth. On a personal level, that bothers me, the fact that he sort of went off on a tangent and would constantly make claims that are hard to verify — that delegitimizes the role of the office, and it delegitimizes his position and his credibility. And, unfortunately, it makes it hard to appreciate the things that he did do for the country that were quite appropriate and quite good. They obfuscate so much of the truth and the positive work.
In the newsroom, there’s a big wall between the news desk and the op-ed desk, and they really operate separately. But the more and more you read … I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to see people opine. I don’t want them to opine. That’s not their role. That headline you read to me, it read like it was more of an editorial piece than a news piece.
And that was AP, which purports to be just a straight newswire.
Right. If it’s a straight newswire, then it needs to be delivered as a straight news story. And to me, that’s where it’s getting weird. We’ve talked about the fake news. I appreciate what a lot of news reporters do. I appreciate what a lot of investigative work does. And there is room for editorialization and opinion, but there’s also room for straight news. The problem is those lines have faded, such that, if you look at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, some of the so-called straight news stories feel like editorialized pieces.
I think that sows the seeds for why the media is so heavily distrusted. And that’s really the problem — the media is distrusted.
You indicated that while the media was wrong in its coverage, they were also dealing with someone unlike anyone they’d ever dealt with before, in regard to both his manner and his making unverifiable claims.
Exactly. Unfortunately, we have two parallel narratives going on here, and that’s what’s so frustrating. You have the media overstepping and covering it in a particular way, but at the same time, you have a president acting unpresidential, overreaching, overstating, exaggerating, and in many cases, just misleading. So he opened the door for that. This would be a lot harder to do if you had someone who acted more presidential.
If Trump violates presidential norms, is it then appropriate for the media to violate journalistic norms?
Not at all.
They both parallel-track, when you look at which institutions people trust. Just because Trump acted badly doesn’t mean the media had to act that way. They could have held themselves to a higher standard. They have professional schools. It’s unionized, they have lots of awards they have given themselves, it’s a guild, which means there are norms and standards. Both groups, in both parallel worlds, failed to live up to the requisite standards. And that is embarrassing.
Let’s take Trump’s boasts about the inauguration-crowd size, which appear to be untrue based on photographs of the crowd; or his lawsuits over election fraud, which both liberal and conservative courts have tossed. If you’re a news writer, how should you deal with this?
What you just said, those are questions of fact, where there’s material evidence. You shouldn’t shy away from reporting on that. And you’re welcome to report other people who study it, like activists and various watchdog groups — report on them coming up with those views, and share those views.
But when the lede, the headline, is clearly an editorial piece, rather than reporting on it, and then when, most importantly, you fail to potentially balance it out with an alternative narrative that other people believe, that’s part of the problem.
So what you’re saying is, instead of a theoretical headline, “Trump Pushes False Claims of Election Fraud,” you would do a headline “Trump Claims Election Fraud,” and have the lede say that Trump claimed election fraud, and later on in the article, or even in the second sentence, say, “Trump has not provided any proof,” and quote his opposition saying these are lies, but not that the reporter is saying it himself.
Yes. That’s the whole point. The reporter is supposed to report. The reporter is not supposed to be an active member of that engagement.
Being a reporter is interesting; it’s sort of like being an academic. And of course, the problem is that the academy has changed, and I think some of the norms in journalism may be changing. People in the academy now say they can’t not be activists. They say you can’t just be in an ivory tower, that if you’re going to write about something, you have to be an “activist scholar.” My concern is that with journalism, likewise, the idea is you can’t be an unbiased journalist. I disagree. Everyone has bias, but how you present it is key. The idea that everything you write has to be written through your particular lens, bias or ideology is false.
You can decide what you want to cover and how you want to cover it, but facts are facts, and we need to put those facts out there. When you have a place like The New York Times, which is supposed to be a paper of record — they see themselves as a paper of record — that’s so biased, that’s a problem.
So it seems that you’re not really that critical of the way the media covered stories where Trump was depicted as lying. You’re more critical of the fact that they didn’t give much coverage to some of the better things that he did.
Yes. Certain things were lies, certain things weren’t, but to me the bigger issue is not any one-off story or one-off bizarre headline. To me the real problem with the newsroom and the bias in the paper is simply the fact that it is a monolithic approach. You know, Trump says this, it’s wrong. Trump says that, it’s bad. Trump did this, it’s not good.
There are many examples of that. If you look at the content of all the stories, it’s always in one direction. There was nothing that was positive about Israel, about how we deal with the world culture. Whether you support Israel or not, the things that are happening right now, with the peace deals, you wouldn’t even know they’re happening. Had this been Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, this would be front-page news.
These stories were minimized. They’re there, but the deep dive in how they happened isn’t necessarily on the front page … you don’t see the focus on it, you don’t see the digital presence pushing those stories up. Had this been another president, it would have been, “Foreign Policy Triumph.”
In addition to the Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain, in October Sudan formally agreed to normalize ties with Israel and join the broader diplomatic realignment in the Middle East, and in December Israel and Morocco agreed to normalize their relations, improving security and economic relationships. This region is re-aligning after decades of no movement, and this reality was overlooked by most in the liberal press.
Also, Trump rightly criticized the woke mob, its authoritarian and progressive impulses including cancel culture, and the fact that this is dangerous for America and Americans. This was widely ignored by the press and while Trump himself engaged in public shaming which is completely un-presidential and undercut his legitimacy here, he articulated a view that many Americans hold but are too afraid to admit. Two examples: At his Mt. Rushmore speech, Trump asserted that among the progressive mobs, “one of their political weapons is ‘cancel culture’ — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values, and it has absolutely no place in the United States.” And at the RNC, Trump argued that “the goal of cancel culture is to make decent Americans live in fear of being fired, expelled, shamed, humiliated and driven from society as we know it. The far left wants to coerce you into saying what you know to be false, and scare you out of saying what you know to be true.” As we can all see, these impulses have escaped the campuses of high ed’s colleges and universities, and now infect our schools, businesses, and countless areas of public and private life including scientific judgment. These forces are dangerous and deadly and the CDC almost prioritizes social justice over science in delivering the vaccine. This is scary as can be, and Trump was right on this; the country is headed in the wrong direction if reason, discourse, and debate is silenced and fear of a social justice mob — which is not social justice at all — is allowed to terrorize and scare people into submission.
Once Biden becomes president, how do you think the media will treat him, assuming, for argument’s sake, that he’s just a “typical politician” and lies? If Biden makes an unverifiable allegation, will the media treat it in the same way that they did with Trump? Or do you believe that there will be a different standard?
I don’t like to speculate, but what I can say for sure is that there’s a meanness in the coverage of all these figures. I find that very frustrating. I write about polarization and how we are as people. The meanness is going to continue. I wish it would stop.
Biden is already getting hammered on some of his appointees, and it’s all mean.
So it may not be the same level, covering lies in the same sort of way. But it’s still a very aggressive, hostile tone. And I think that’s also a very important piece of the narrative here. There’s a hostility that exists. And yes, the media should be in antagonism with the White House, because that’s obviously part of the job. But we’ve had periods when it’s not so nasty. And, you know, the “gotcha” moment. That’s very, very difficult for me to deal with, that we’re now in a world where it’s not compromise. It’s gotcha, gotcha, gotcha.
And I think that’s going to persist.
Ari L. Goldman is a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, and director of the school’s Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism and the Spiritual Life.
Before coming to Columbia, Professor Goldman spent 20 years as a reporter at The New York Times, covering religion, New York State politics, transportation and education. He was educated at Yeshiva University, Harvard and Columbia.
Professor Goldman also serves on the faculty of the School of The New York Times.
Professor Goldman has contributed articles and reviews to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, and several Jewish media outlets.
We’re nearing the end of the Trump era — at least his first term; it remains to be seen what happens in 2024. Trump has repeatedly referred to the media as “fake news.” What is your assessment of the media coverage during the Trump administration or even before that, with his campaign?
Fascination with him, I would say.
If we’re talking about all media, TV loves him, because he’s such a spectacle. His look, the way he speaks, he’s been a media darling. Forget about what he has to say, he just draws the camera toward him. And I think that’s why he’s president — because we just can’t take our eyes off him, because he’s just so outrageous.
The media has held him to a standard that they hold every public official to. If somebody lies, you have to call him out on it. And that went from the beginning till the end of his presidency. When he claimed to have the biggest crowds in history at his inauguration — and it was just not true, you can hold a picture and say, “Wait a second, Obama’s crowds are bigger” — and he just persists in the lie, right to the end, where he says that he won the election, even though he lost.
The job of the media isn’t to be a stenographer and just write down, “The President says he won, but the electoral college says he lost,” or “Biden says that he won.” The media’s job is to try to do its best to approximate the truth. And that’s what the media has done consistently. Trump doesn’t like the truth often … he tells one lie after another and doesn’t like to be corrected. And if somebody says something he doesn’t like, he calls them out as “fake news.”
On January 23, 2017, The New York Times had a headline, “Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote in Meeting With Lawmakers.” [Trump claimed that illegal immigrants’ votes had cost him the popular-vote majority.] Let’s assume for argument’s sake that you believe Trump was lying. Do you feel that is an appropriate headline in a news article? We’re not talking about the editorial page or fact-checking articles.
Yes, I think it’s more than appropriate; it’s your responsibility. If somebody says “black” and you can see that it’s white, you have to say, “The President said it’s black, but it is white.” That is the responsibility of journalism. He’s not entitled to make things up.
Maybe some things are black and white, but other things aren’t. Aren’t we on a slippery slope here if we start having news reporters writing the word “lie” in what are purportedly news articles? Maybe the news article should just report what was said, and then have the editorial saying it’s a lie.
On matters of opinion, that’s fine. But on matters of fact, you have to call them out.
I’d like to discuss the Associated Press’ coverage. With newspapers, to a certain extent, people know and understand their biases. But AP purports to be unbiased news reporting, and probably drives news more than any other single entity in America. Even the major news outlets, which have teams of reporters, often use AP reports as a basis for their stories. Have you seen any difference in their coverage of Trump versus Obama, as far as what is considered an appropriate way to cover a president, and to challenge and criticize a president?
I think there definitely has been a change. The AP, like all media, was never faced with someone like Trump. The Washington Post has documented over 20,000 lies that the President has told. It’s so many lies a day. And this is not a matter of bias.
Isn’t it disrespecting the readers for a news reporter to essentially be saying, “I have to tell you what to think, because I don’t trust that by just giving you the information, you will come to the ‘correct’ conclusion”? For example, with Trump’s claim about the inauguration-crowd size. One way to do it is writing in a headline, “Trump says lie about inauguration crowd.” Another way you can do it is with a headline, “Trump insists that his inauguration had a larger crowd,” and the article would say, “Trump continued to insist that his inauguration had a larger crowd despite being shown photographs that appeared to show the contrary.”
There’s an art to headline writing. You try to write concisely and quickly and get the reader’s attention. Characterizing it as a lie is a quick way to say there’s a contradiction in here. But for me to hold up the contradiction in the headline is much harder. And even in that article you cited, the word “lie” is in the headline; it’s probably not in the lede.
You’re right — the Times used the word “lie” in the headline, but not in the article itself.
Back to AP, and sticking with the inauguration, here’s a lede from the AP on January 22, 2017. “On his first full day in office, President Donald Trump on Saturday berated the media over its coverage of his inauguration, and turned a bridge-building first visit to CIA headquarters into an airing of grievances about ‘dishonest’ journalists. But it was Trump who spread inaccuracies about the size of the crowds at his swearing in.”
Everything there is factual.
The article goes on to say, “He defensively touted the crowd size for his swearing-in ceremony, wrongly claiming that the throngs on the National Mall stretched ‘all the way back to the Washington Monument.’ Photos and video clearly showed the crowd stopping well short of the landmark.” Now what if that paragraph were just slightly changed to, “He touted the crowd size for his swearing-in ceremony, claiming that the throngs on the National Mall stretched ‘all the way back to the Washington Monument.’ Photos and video showed the crowd stopping well short of the landmark.”
All I did was remove the words “defensively,” “wrongly” and “clearly.”
I think in another era, that would have been the case; I think if Obama had done something like that, we wouldn’t be so quick to judge him and to call him out. But Obama wasn’t a serial liar. Every president lies. Every politician lies. They wouldn’t get to high office if they weren’t liars.
It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon here: Did the press hate Trump, or did Trump hate the press — what came first? Certainly, Trump’s attacks on the press made the press more emboldened. It made them want to stand up to him and say, it’s not that we hate you, it’s just that you’re not telling the truth.
What we value as Jews is truth — emes is our highest value. You want to say that Trump did certain things that we like, that’s inarguably true, too. But the fact that he has trouble stating the truth should be a problem for us.
Regarding comparing Trump to other presidents: Theoretically, if a president lies, they should all be treated the same. Trump is treated worse for two reasons. One is that this is a continual thing. And the second is that he calls the press horrible things, and the press gets into a defensive posture with him.
Another AP headline, this one from January 12, 2020. “Against all evidence, debunked Ukraine theory endures.” Here are the first three paragraphs:
“With President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial set to begin in the Senate, some Republican allies continue to promote a discredited theory that accuses Ukraine of interfering in the 2016 U.S. election to keep him from winning.
“The notion, which is not supported by U.S. intelligence agencies, has nonetheless been embraced by a president reluctant to acknowledge the reality of Russian election interference, and anxious to show he had reason to be suspicious of Ukraine as the U.S. withheld crucial military aid last year.
“The effect: Blurring the facts of the impeachment case for many Americans before it even reaches trial.”
I want to focus on two clauses: “blurring the facts,” and “acknowledge the reality of Russian election interference.” The AP news authors are essentially saying, “We are telling you readers that this is the reality, there’s no room for you to decide.” Do you believe this is an appropriately written article?
I think that that is more of an analytical article. I don’t know if it was tagged that, or whether it’s by one of their analysts, but that’s not your traditional AP just-the-facts article.
If you’ve read AP regularly during the Trump era, that sounds like your typical AP article, and I’ve got a whole stack of articles like these. On December 9, 2020, an article about the Texas attorney general’s lawsuit challenging the election results says, “Paxton’s suit repeats a litany of false, disproven and unsupported allegations.”
I would have to agree — you got me to say it: The press has been tougher on Trump than it was on Obama, but Trump deserves it. Trumps deserves that kind of scrutiny.
I want to ask you about one more AP article with Trump, from December 9, 2020. Headline: “Despite Trump’s venting and threats, Biden’s win is sealed.” Here are the first few paragraphs:
“There’s plenty of noise but no cause for confusion as President Donald Trump vents about how the election turned out and vows to subvert it even still.
“This truth is self-evident: Joe Biden is on track to become president Jan. 20. The machinery of government and democracy is moving inexorably toward that end despite Trump’s attempts to undermine the voters’ will.
“Trump on Wednesday demanded an ‘OVERTURN’ of the outcome in a collection of tweets arguing he could only have lost the election if it were ‘FIXED.’ He attempted to support his case by saying odds-makers on election night heavily favored his reelection, ‘the so-called bookies,’ as if a gambler’s bet mattered.
“Americans who don’t wish to get caught up in the nitty gritty of Trump’s attempts to undermine the election can take their cue from one of the many judges who have dismissed the complaints of his team or his allies that the voting or counting was corrupt.
“‘This ship has sailed,’ said U.S. District Judge Linda Parker in throwing out a lawsuit challenging Biden’s win in Michigan this week.
“Not only has the ship sailed but it has reached safe harbor and dropped anchor.”
Is such language appropriate in a news article?
I gave you two reasons. I’m going to give you a third reason: Trump has a broader reach than the AP. In other words, if you are on Twitter, you’ll know that Trump says, “It’s a lie, I won the election, I’m going to fight this.” More people read that than AP. So AP is saying that he’s whistling in the wind, yes. What’s a bigger stick than Twitter?
So the AP, in order to counter the lies, who’s going to pay attention if it just reports, “He says X, he says Y.” I think you’ve got to state it more emphatically.
Once the news media decides to call out lies — every reporter has his own opinion on issues — don’t we run the risk that that’s the end of news reporting?
No. And I think the press has done a heroic job in the face of a president who incited people against them.
If you have a president who says I don’t wear a mask and you don’t have to wear a mask, is the press is supposed to say, “On the one hand, Trump says don’t wear a mask, and the other hand, the scientists say do”? That’s simply not enough. We have 300,000 Americans dead because of that policy. The press has to be aggressive.
And let’s see how aggressive they are with Biden. I think that’s going to be the key. I think the press is not going to be Obama-like with Biden; I think it’s already beginning to give him a hard time. Look at the front page of today’s Times; it talks about how Biden’s trying to hold the Democratic lions together. It’s going to be critical of him. But let’s see how he reacts. Let’s see what job the press does and let’s see how much he lies.
Do you feel that the media downplayed Trump’s accomplishments? For example, some on the Right say that if another president had negotiated the Abraham Accords, the media would have spoken about it much more as a major accomplishment.
I believe he undermined his own accomplishments. So we have a vaccine now, baruch Hashem. And rather than say, “I had Operation Warp Speed, look what I accomplished, and I get credit for it,” he’s off on another whole conspiracy theory, about the election. This could be a victory lap for him, but he undermines his own accomplishments. Does the media undermine his accomplishments? The short answer is yes, because there are so few.
My final question is not about how the media covers a story, but about certain stories the media chooses not to cover. One example is the Hunter Biden story. Shortly before the election, the New York Post came out with this article with allegations. Many in the mainstream media ignored it. Not that they covered it and said “it’s unverified,” but that they pretty much ignored it completely. And the Post was banned from Twitter for a couple weeks over it. Recently they have been covering it, which, according to those on the Right, is because Joe Biden won the election so he can’t be hurt by this anymore.
You said they didn’t cover it even though it was unverified.
But I put the “unverified” first. In other words, it was not a story. There are a lot of crazy things out there. It was never verified, and I don’t think it was ever worthy of coverage.
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