What I Learned by Watching the Press Try to Cover Trump

June 2020

Long-held common practices in political journalism feel increasingly implausible because Trump breaks so many of the rules that held for presidents in the past. The press has to change the way it relates to Trump – or risks turning his behavior into the new normal.

by Jay Rosen

1440 Trump Media Press Jay Rosen

1. My biggest learning so far

The practices of the American press rest on buried assumptions about how presidents of both parties will behave. Those assumptions do not apply to Trump. This means the practices break. But since the assumptions had long ago been naturalized, the press has tended to normalize Trump, rather than face the difficult work of changing its practices. 

2. Verification in reverse

To verify is to take a truth claim and nail it down with facts, data, documents, interviews. “Verification in reverse” is when you take what has been nailed down and publicly doubt it. This creates friction, controversy, excitement, story. You can tap that energy to power a political movement, which is how Trump’s candidacy got started. He became a birther. (A birther is a person who falsely claims that former U.S. president Barack Obama was born outside the U.S. and was therefore ineligible to be president under the provisions of the U.S. Constitution.) 

3. Approaching truth from the demand side

Terms like “post-truth” do not speak to me. But a key fact about the platforms, especially Facebook, is how efficient they are at surfacing the demand for a claim to be true – even when it is not. A constituency exists for the made-up “fact” that Obama was born in Kenya. Facebook is a machine for sensing demands like that. Journalists see themselves as suppliers of truth. But the demand for a claim to be true is where Trump lives. 

4. Flooding the zone works

In the U.S. it’s called “flooding the zone.” In the Russian setting, the “firehose of falsehood.” This method attacks journalism at its weakest points. And it is working. The firehose erodes trust on all sides, persuades people they are not getting the truth, repels all but the most determined listeners, turns politics into ugliness. Neither the small-d democrats nor the Big J journalists have an answer for it. It is running free. 

5. Governing against the news media

“The Democrats don’t matter,” Steve Bannon said in 2018. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit…” Bannon is not a wise man, but this was a smart statement about Trump’s political style, which turns journalists into hate objects, overwhelms the news system with controversy, and persuades supporters to “pre-reject” whatever the press says about him. 

6. “In 1,170 days, President Trump has made 18,000 false or misleading claims.”

So says a recent headline at the Washington Post. An ancient law in American journalism states that “what the president says is news.” But this is an example of a practice he broke – by his endless lying and disinformation. So I have urged the press to replace that ancient maxim with a new one: “The president said this. Is it really worth amplifying?” 

7. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Les Moonves, head of CBS broadcast network, said that on February 29, 2016. It was a profound statement. Not only is Trump’s rise good business for the industry that pays the salaries of most journalists but also, he said, what is good for the news media is bad for American democracy. But hey, this is what we do. The cost of this attitude – in professional pride and public trust – is incalculable. 

8. Missing in action: the Republican party

Political scientists will tell you that opposition to an American president rarely changes the mind of his supporters. But when leaders of his own party push back against his excesses, that matters to voters. It almost never happens with the Republican party and Trump. Here then is another erosion of American democracy. It permits both Fox News and Trump’s presidency to be “about” his fights with the media, just as Steve Bannon said. 

9. We’re unbuilding the public for news

Trust in the news media has been declining for a long time in the U.S. But now a turn has been made. By my estimate about 30 percent of the electorate trusts in Trump as a source of information about Trump, more than it trusts the reporting of the mainstream press. Which means that an authoritarian news system is up and running for this cohort, which moves in an information loop of its own. 

10. James Fallows of The Atlantic said it well:

The media weren’t built for someone like this. That someone has not changed. The media must change.” True, but it goes deeper. “Both sides” reporting, horse race coverage, treating politics as a game played by insiders: all pictured a world of roughly equal parties playing by the same rules. A political consensus in American society made plausible these consensus practices in its press. All that is now crumbling, which is why common practices in political journalism feel increasingly implausible.

This is a summary of the ten major points I made in a lecture presented to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford on May 15, 2020. I composed my thoughts into slides, and shared my screen with about 100 attendees from around the world. Each slide was intended to distill down something I have learned by doing this “beat” – Trump and the press – since 2015.  

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