Off The Media: On Covering Trump

Jack Shafer’s “New Rules for Covering Trump” were well-founded but incomplete.

The lauded media critic now with Politico outlined a well-reasoned framework, urging deftness in covering Trump’s Tweets and pro-active reporting from places other than the White House. His ideas are a fine start and deal with important procedures. But there’s another crucial step: to expand understanding beyond one’s usual sphere.

Essentially, I argued in an email exchange with Shafer, journalists also need to grok Trump voters, understand varied information flows and respect Trump’s acumen. “Good points, all,” Shafer graciously wrote.  Here’s the meat of my email (edited a bit for sense), and some added thoughts.

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I’d posit a bit more on covering Trump. Reporters need to, adjust their mindsets, to:

1. Avoid false objectivity but strive for balance. You alluded to this in saying the president-elect’s outlandish claims don’t need to be debunked in a traditional sense. Still, reporters need to be able to understand and acknowledge their own biases, to know and try to understand why people may recoil. On a Fulbright in the ’90s, exploring Japanese vs. American coverage of news events, I learned there is little that is truly objective. What are taken as “givens” are often culture-bound. Even the choice of how to frame a photo is an editorial choice that can sway perceptions.

2. Have compassion for those who voted for Trump, rather than branding them as “reprehensible” even if some are. If the job of journalists is to comfort the afflicted, then many of those who at least feel themselves to be afflicted are Trump voters.

3. Realize what we don’t understand or emotionally grasp. Many of us in media work in corridors well outside cultures that thrive in so-called “red states” and fail to understand the sophistication and depth of knowledge and experience that exists in many of those places. At the risk of making this a bit personal to make the point: I have a relative who sounds like a rural hick and loves hunting but is also an MBA and boutique banker based in a southern “Red State” city who can hold his own as a risk finance analyst against any Wall Streeter or Bostonian. It’s wrong to think of him and others who may have voted for Trump for whatever personal reasons as either under-educated or unsophisticated.

4. Understand that we live in different information universes. I have other close family who (unlike me) are Christian conservatives and (like me) have college or post-graduate degrees. While we follow many of the same news stories, we see them through different filters because of our channels of news consumption. I’m reminded that differing news coverage harkens back to earlier days of our republic, when pamphleteers were far from fair or balanced in their portrayal of news events. On a related note, I wonder why there has not been a good Left counter to Breitbart or Fox (MSNBC notwithstanding). Maybe that’s for another exploration. (That’s the end of the email exchange.) 

To understand the incoming president’s information universe, we should probably look at Breitbart — from which he apparently Tweets more than any other news organization — and other conservative-leaning sources, according to a database compiled by Buzzfeed. These sources infuse Trump’s tenor, tone and facts.

Observing them closely may also indicate stories from which he’s deflecting. For example, soon before Trump Tweeted about the cost of a new Air Force One, right-leaning news orgs such as Newsmax had been pushing a story covered by The Washington Post about Boeing building fighter jets in India and creating jobs there. (This was pointed out to me by friend and former colleague Dave Beard.) Mainstream media sources largely missed the India jets and jobs issue, instead citing another story as the possible target of deflection, on pronouncements Boeing’s CEO made, from another mainstream publication, the Chicago Tribune.

Another example: By looking at right-leaning sources we might better understand Trump’s assertion of winning in a “landslide,” and why that might resonate with millions of Americans. Articles pointed out that Trump won 5 times more counties than Hillary Clinton did, and said he triumphed “in the heartland” by 7.5 million votes, and that New York and California accounted for all of Clinton’s majority. Mainstream media debunked the landslide claim, but there’s a view that says otherwise.

5. Ask simple, pointed questions. “What?“How?” and “Why?” can work wonders. Interviewers need to have simple curiosity, to follow answers with a quick “hunh?” rather than rushing ahead to tick off a list or over-frame their questions (as all of us do on occasion). Some questions I’d like asked include:

“Why do you say you won in a landslide, Mr. Trump?”

“What evidence do you have of massive voter fraud?”

“To bring our country together, what would you say to the majority of Americans who didn’t vote for you?” (And let’s not forget there are many voters who didn’t vote for Hillary or Trump, so this majority is much higher than the 2.9 million often cited.)

Answers to these types of questions could help us learn more of Trump’s information sources and his thinking, which in turn will help with future coverage and interviews.

6. Treat Trump as smart. Comedic portrayals on SNL and elsewhere hold the popular imagination by showing the president-elect as buffoonish, but that doesn’t serve us longer term. It’s the creator of a comic strip, Scott Adams of “Dilbert,” who early on understood Trump’s power as a “master persuader.” And Scott Dikkers, founding editor of the parody paper The Onion observed that: “His messaging is the most disciplined I’ve ever seen in a presidential candidate.”

Trump knows how to incite and assuage, and he plays the media like a master musician. By being unwitting instruments, media will serve neither journalism nor democracy. Getting inside his thinking, and that of his supporters, should help cover him. A mindset and outlook that expands mainstream media’s worldview may even be good for business, getting more people from many spectra to engage.

Journalists who put themselves in the right frame of mind could increase the impact of any reportorial techniques.

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Thanks for indulging this foray beyond, strictly, the business of MadTech (media, marketing and advertising technology). We’ll consider it a resurrection of  “Off-The-Media,” a rubric for media meta-criticism I brought to the Web a decade ago and under which we’ll now share occasional critical perspectives. We’d love to hear yours, too.

Author: Dorian Benkoil

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