In today’s Morning Memo, David notes that Donald Trump’s latest ravings have been so extreme as to manage to break through, at least partly, the wall of mainstream media indifference. Trump pledges to take Comcast (owner of MSNBC) off the air for “treason” if he’s returned to office and suggests that retiring Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley should be executed. Milley, who retires at the end of the month, gave a lengthy (and, for Trump, unflattering) interview to Atlantic Monthly editor Jeff Goldberg. So that’s what Milley’s execution is about. This is the moment we live in in the history of the American republic, a man who talks like a character out of a dystopian novel about the end of America is the choice of about half of Americans to be the next President.
The prospect is so horrible and terrifying that virtually everyone looks for someone else to lash out at or blame. It’s Joe Biden’s age; it’s Democrats’ ineffectiveness; it’s this or that other thing. I may be doing some version of this. But this is a good moment to appreciate a specific kind of media failure that bears at least some blame for our current national predicament. Trump’s recent outbursts are genuinely ghastly. But if you follow him on his lifestyle social network, Truth Social, it’s not surprising or particularly new. It’s pretty par for the post-Jan 6th Trump. Trump’s exile to Truth Social has had the curious effect of leaving Trump’s channels of communication with his diehard supporters open and robust while muffling him for most everyone else.
Quite a lot of this stems from the bien pensant liberal nonsense about “not amplifying” Trump or the idea that coverage is his superpower. CNN broadcasting Trump’s speeches just makes him stronger, the argument goes. Don’t give him a platform to broadcast his hate! It’s a stupid argument and one whose stupidity isn’t random or fortuitous. It’s really not much more than the childhood belief that if we close our own eyes, the bad thing won’t be there anymore. The fallacy is baked deeply into a certain kind of liberal mentality.
Certainly there are other factors at play. One is another we’ve discussed at length here at TPM. The both sides framework rooted not so much in the journalism of mainstream media but in the business model that constrains that journalism. We should also never forget that most of Trump’s power comes not from bad decisions by Democrats or bad journalism, but by the uncomfortable fact that a substantial minority of the population simply wants what Trump is selling. That’s the big thing. And yet this smaller thing provides a critical margin. This well-meaning but deeply misguided effort to shield the public from Trump’s threats of violence and repression have played to his advantage. There’s simply no other way to put it.
More than one commentator noted yesterday that the clearest snapshot of Trump’s latest promises somehow came from none other than Matt Drudge.
Kind of wild that Drudge report is more accurately conveying the gravity of Trump's threat to USA democracy than the mainstream media. https://t.co/evx1eFSTdl— Jeet Heer (@HeerJeet) September 25, 2023
Media critic Jay Rosen noted the challenge of neither “flooding the zone” on Trump nor normalizing the crazy.
Flooding the zone breaks the alert system. Keep warning (front page news!) and you can sound hysterical, out of touch. Stay cool ("that's just how he talks…") and you risk normalizing the threat. There's no good answer, except for finding the right tone. https://t.co/esClVICWiR— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) September 25, 2023
Let me say first that this is a very real problem. I don’t dispute the complexity or difficulty of it. We can know this for the most basic reason which is that if things were functioning right a former and possible future President threatening to execute the man he appointed as the country’s top soldier over a magazine article would end that person’s political career instantly. It shouldn’t matter whether newspapers and broadcasters cover it one way or another. But here we are. Things aren’t functioning right. And we need to operate within that reality.
But I do think there’s a way to thread this needle. And that’s to simply report what it is he says, what he threatens. The great majority of reporting on Trump gets buried in euphemisms about lashing out at this person or that person. Warnings and alarms really can be distracting. Their value is limited at best and pernicious to the extent they obscure what they’re warning about. As someone who reads the headlines and follows Trump on Truth Social, the disconnect is unreal. It would have been far better for the country if Trump had never been banned from Twitter in the first place.
Ironic, but true.
There’s a deep irony that Drudge seems to have managed that yesterday more ably than anyone. Reporting clearly things that are alarming is more important than telling people how alarming it all is. Trump threatens to take top cable carrier off the air in second term. Trump threatens to execute retiring general. Comcast’s NBC program “Meet the Press” did a major sit-down interview with Trump only days ago. But what Trump is actually promising, day after day, barely got a hearing. We’re still in this mode of ‘taking Trump seriously but not literally,’ as one of his most craven 2016 lickspittles put it. Reporters should be taking seriously what he says and reporting out what it means. What could Trump do within the law to take Comcast off the air? More pointedly, what could he do outside the law? It would be better to cover simply as a matter of fact Trump as a candidate promising to silence his foes and commit various acts of extra-judicial violence on his enemies simply because that is the fact.
A lot of discussion of journalism rates the value and quality of journalism on the basis of political outcomes. But that’s far too much to ask and a basic misunderstanding of the role journalism should or even can play in a civic democracy. The truer measure is whether journalism as a whole keeps the public informed about what is actually happening, what political leaders say and do, what they promise to do or are likely to do in the future. On that measure Trump coverage falls consistently short.