Pressing Issues

The Media Is Determined to Repeat All Its Mistakes in Covering Trump

The crimes of the former president are still being covered by legacy news as if they were a circus act and not an international security crisis. And they seem determined to keep it that way.

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Last Tuesday, on June 13, 2023, for the first time in history, a former U.S. president was indicted by a federal grand jury on criminal charges. Donald J. Trump was arrested, charged, and booked in a long-anticipated moment of accountability for his admitted felonies: stealing classified information from the government, conspiring to hide it, and trying to use it to undermine the security of the United States of America.

It’s easy to see why the corporate press immediately characterized Trump’s arraignment last week as a circus. If this drama was playing out overseas, Americans would be shaking their heads at the naked shamelessness of the president’s corruption and the incompetence of his coverup: Trump’s lawyers recorded voice memos of his lawbreaking! Trump and his staffers shoved boxes of state secrets in the bathroom! He waved official records at country club guests and then told them not to tell anyone!

But underlying all the embarrassing tacky details are grave matters. Imagine working in federal law enforcement, in the Central Intelligence Agency, and risking your safety to carry out the will of America’s elected officials, knowing they’ve sworn to keep your life and work safe in return.

Imagine then finding out the president of the United States, on his way out the door, hauled out a bunch of folders with your life in them—your identity, your home, your family—so he could hock them for cash and clout for himself.

It’s hard to think of a more consequential story, with more impact on our recent past and near future. And it was an opportunity for America’s elite corporate press to show what they’d learned from the past five years, during which they covered Trump like the ringmaster at the Big Top.

Instead, they dove right into the pile of elephant shit.

The TV networks covered Trump’s post-arraignment rallies live. They invited his usual defenders to … defend him in the usual terms. Anchors intoned through unnamed, unquoted “experts” about the danger to political routine:

Experts say that a current U.S. government criminally prosecuting its former leader and current leading opposition party candidate upends long-held norms and could test the nation’s democratic system in a manner that stretches far beyond the merits of the case itself.

Assignment editors almost immediately platformed anonymous “concerns” that Democrats would suffer backlash from Trump facing consequences for his crimes, worrying that it would appear politically motivated, even though it is a clear-cut case of treason.

Some Democrats worry that if Trump were to beat charges similar to what Democrat John Edwards was acquitted of 2012, it could make it easier for Trump’s team to cast any future charges as a “witch hunt.”

As if any criticism could hold weight from a man who on live television encouraged his followers to sack government buildings and assault elected officials and civil servants!

The Sunday political shows booked the same old Republican liars to tell the same old Republican lies: that Trump was being attacked, that Democrats were the real criminals, that America faced no more dire a threat than the rule of law.

Between the ponderously overdramatic op-eds declaring Trump’s charges a historical first (so was all the crime) and very, very scary for some idea of “America,” national newspapers rushed out to interview the same ten people who’ve supported Trump since he announced his candidacy.

The New York Times declared in its main Sunday headline that the “justice system” was on trial, as though a Trump conviction or exoneration would prove America’s rule of law invalid all by itself, unaffected by political pressure.

Times reporter Peter Baker writes:

In the public arena, though, it may be a one-sided fight. Mr. Trump and his allies can scream as loudly as they can that the system is unfair, but prosecutors are bound by rules limiting how much they can say in response.

Well, then, if only there was a way for journalists like Baker to cut through that wave of bad-faith obfuscation and explain what was really happening, who was demonstrably dishonest, and what the consequences were. It’s too bad reporters seem to feel their job is merely to show up and put a megaphone to the mouth of a liar.

The Times followed this tortured performance with a triumphant front-page photo of Trump, with the American flag as a backdrop, descending an airplane staircase beside the headline MOMENTOUS SCENE. Contrast that with the usual treatment of current President Joe Biden, portrayed as bumbling, aged, and controlled by his aides.

Audiences would be better served by actual court stenography untainted by “analysis” like this, from the Washington Post:

Trump is the clear polling leader in the GOP presidential primary, and his effort to project strength and his continued influence in the party appeared to be succeeding in rallying Republicans to his defense. Even some of his rivals in the primary have expressed support.

This is the kind of credulous repetition of a politician’s dearest wishes and fondest hopes that turns so many off traditional media. The reporters writing this piece know Trump’s “projection” of strength is a fiction. These veteran political journalists recognize that the Republicans “rallying” to his defense are doing so out of a desire to court Trump’s rabid fanbase or at least avoid its wrath online, rather than out of any sincere belief in Trump’s innocence. But they credulously report what Trump’s various hench-creatures whisper in an effort to prove their unbiased bona fides, to say See! See? We listen to what you have to say, too!

They point their cameras at the same podium at the same time. They interview the same people in the same ways. They cover politics this way because it’s always been done this way, because it feels familiar and the jargon sounds smart to them and their friends, and because everyone else is already doing it so they won’t draw undue, unwanted attention to themselves.

And when they’re called on this behavior, they stammer that we NEED to hear from Republican liars in this moment, or that their critics just don’t understand the important role journalism plays, or imply those asking for better journalism would rather have no journalism at all.

There are a thousand ways to cover Trump’s circus that neither validate the creepy clowns nor feed the screeching monkeys.

Journalists can call upon legal experts unaffiliated with the GOP and its myriad think tanks and civil servants at every level whose work is disrupted by Trump’s ongoing criminality. They can make historical comparisons from similar cases. They can center the perspectives of ordinary Americans whose lives are actually affected by what’s happening here, especially those involved in the kinds of conflicts cited in the documents Trump kept.

Hell, the courthouse custodian’s thoughts on the legal proceedings so far would be more relevant and interesting than Lindsey Graham’s, and they’re more likely to be honest.

All that, however, presumes serving audiences—informing people, helping them make personal and political decisions—is corporate media’s goal. Trump’s indictment exposed just how extensively corporate media serves itself: its conventions, its comforts, and most of all, its clichés.


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