How should the media cover Trump?

Worry less about official access, try to pick up on fake massacres and then . . . go fishing

 Kellyanne Conway has berated the media for not covering a fictitious massacre. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kellyanne Conway has berated the media for not covering a fictitious massacre. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

 

It is surprisingly easy to move on from fake massacres. Being shallow creatures, most of us have now put the non-events of Bowling Green behind us. One possible exception is Chris Matthews, who by rights should still be waking up in an acute state of cringe.

A quick reminder: Matthews is the presenter of MSNBC’s Hardball who gave Trump adviser Kellyanne “alternative facts” Conway a free pass to justify the actions of a grotesque White House by citing an attack on US soil that never happened – not only that, she berated the media for not covering the fictitious massacre.

It’s not hard to see what happened here. Matthews was already warming up to interject with another question when Conway starts making up stuff about Bowling Green. In the pressure-cooker of live television, his wits deserted him. And while these are surreal times, he probably wasn’t expecting Conway to resort to inventing massacres.

Journalistic failure

Yet, of course, it is a tragic journalistic failure to have an interviewee slip into the realm of fantasy and not to notice. The first answer to the question “How should the media cover Trump?” must surely be “Well, not like that”.

So how should the media cover Trump? Oh God, must we? I’m not proud to say I had vague plans for the sake of my remaining sanity to eschew all news for a daily diet of blissful ignorance punctuated only by Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Desert Island Discs.

I didn’t expect events to move so fast, that even if I wanted to keep up with every sorry executive order spewing forth from the pen of sinister puppet-masters, it would be impossible to do so. Like a virus with no vaccine, Trump has infected our everyday conversations and made our small talk alarmingly large. Friends say they jolt awake wondering “what fresh hell?” as they check their phones. Operation Ostrich is not going well.

Lectures on how the media should cover Trump abound, including the slightly daft suggestion that the duty hacks writing up a few lines summarising Trump’s latest tweet-burst should instead spend those precious 10 minutes investigating his links to Putin – a task that some media commentators appear to think takes the same length of time.

A much more useful and credible contribution comes from Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler. Not only does his recent post Covering Trump the Reuters Way display admirable leadership, it contains only one exclamation mark, which in 2017 already marks it out as an exercise in terrific restraint.

Hostile administrations

Adler sets out the challenge facing journalists in a climate where Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon brands the media “the opposition party”. Reuters journalists already know how to handle hostile administrations, he writes, because they do so every day all over the world, in countries where an unwelcome media is subject to censorship, prosecution, visa denials and even physical threats. “We must follow the same rules that govern our work anywhere,” he concludes.

His “do” list is full of sound advice that could apply in any political and media culture, including our own. Here is just one: “Give up on hand-outs and worry less about official access. They were never all that valuable anyway. Our coverage of Iran has been outstanding and we have virtually no official access. What we have are sources.”

The “don’ts” were equally interesting for noting that it is not the Reuters way to make the story about Reuters. “We may care about the inside baseball but the public generally doesn’t and might not be on our side even if it did.” The irony here is that in making his message to staff public, Reuters created some polished marketing for its organisation.

Obvious pitfalls should go without saying. It is not the job of the media, nor is it wise of the media, to treat racism, sexism, homophobia and any variant of white supremacy as one side of a “debate”. This is appalling false equivalence that alienates a great many more people than homogeneous newsrooms seem to think.

Principles

When a government shifts to the right, to the left – or closer to hell, whatever – the media should not automatically respond by tracking them in that same journey. They should look to their own principles, not relocate the “balanced” position along a spectrum determined by those in charge. This is the opposite of holding power to account. It is also a betrayal of any media employee whose rights are the ones under attack.

The scary thing for proper journalists is that they could spend months in pursuit of what they believe is the smoking gun that will bring down Trump, only to have it greeted with a shrugged shoulder or, worse, the insistence that the smoking gun is merely more evidence of Trumpian genius.

There was some good news on Friday, as the New Yorker cancelled its kick-off party for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, while Vanity Fair pulled out of co-sponsoring one after-party, as editor Graydon Carter said he would spend the weekend fishing in Connecticut instead. Now there are calls for the press to boycott the event completely and fish everywhere are afraid.

Luke Burns in the New Yorker, meanwhile, recommends some additions to the five journalistic “W”s of who, why, what, where and when. The two “A”s are given as “Are you f***ing kidding me?” and “Am I dreaming?” and the one “I” is now a pretty basic question for all reporters: “Is there no respite from the madness?”

More on this dystopian farce as we get it.

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