How (Not) to Cover Trump’s Indictment
Brooke Gladstone Welcome to the On the Media Midweek podcast. I'm Brooke Gladstone. A grand jury here in New York City has just handed up an indictment against former President Donald Trump.
News Clip An unprecedented day in American history. Former President Donald Trump arrested and arraigned in a manhattan courtroom. The first US president to face criminal charges.
News Clip Former President Donald J. Trump outraged and defiant.
Brooke Gladstone Last Tuesday, Donald Trump was arrested and cable news dug in, breathlessly tracing his every movement. His jet touching down in LaGuardia. His short journey from Trump Tower to the courthouse and inside the courthouse. The news hosts left no detail unremarked upon.
News Clip There is former President Trump exiting the courtroom. Let's see what's just watch and take in the scene. He has obviously exited our view, moving down a a hallway or corridor to his left, our right. Oh, he's gone into the courtroom now, we're told.
Brooke Gladstone Alex Shephard, staff writer at The New Republic, has covered Trump for nearly eight years. He says that the coverage around Trump's indictment found the media stumbling back into some of its own worst habits. So what bothered him the most?
Alex Shephard Probably just the sheer banality of them. I think we were stuck with close to a paradox. The indictment itself is undeniably historic. Nothing like this had ever happened before in American history. It deserved some form of serious and grandiloquent coverage, maybe even wall to wall coverage to some extent. But what we got instead was something way worse and sillier and dumber than that. Cameras rolling endlessly, you know, may just be my own PTSD from covering the 2016 election. But that election, for me, the defining image was the empty podium. Cameras, the cameras rolling, and you were just waiting for Donald Trump to appear, sometimes for hours.
Brooke Gladstone So is this specifically a cable news problem or a more widespread failing of media coverage.
Alex Shephard In the case of 2016 coverage, cable news is where it is the most and the worst. But I think that it's true everywhere to a lesser extent. I'm still sort of haunted by this infographic at The New York Times ran that helpfully showed you that Donald Trump's plane would be going from Florida to New York. And there was a little red dot at the bottom of Florida where he lives in Palm Beach and the little red dot in New York City where he was going to get arrested. The sheer pointlessness of this, you know, I think everybody knows where Florida is, where New York is. There is this kind of feeding frenzy when it comes to Trump news. And one of the things that the press has done a lot better is that it has stopped allowing Donald Trump to be its assigning editor in the post January 6th world. And we saw with the arrest indictment the falling back to the sort of worst old habits in which we're just sort of waiting around for Trump news to happen at the expense of everything else.
Brooke Gladstone Mm hmm. The body language coverage was pretty inane.
News Clip He appears sober, chastened and angry. The typical Trump swagger seems to falter as he listens to the 34 criminal charges against him.
Alex Shephard I mean, it reminded me of the worst next morning commentary. When you watch 24 seven sports networks, you know, where everyone was just breathlessly like Trump looks upset. Of course he's upset. He was just arrested. You don't know what it's always going to be grinning, you know, while they're sitting in a courtroom and having charges read to them for an hour. But I think that that gets at it for me in that you're trying to figure out what the significance of this event is. But what you end up doing is keep drilling down on even more particular specifics of Trump's facial expressions, the coverage of him moving through doors. These are substitutes for actual commentary.
News Clip As he entered the hall of the 15th floor. He didn't even have somebody holding the door open for him. I don't know if you noticed, and we could we could replayed that video at some point of him. Former president actually has to push the door open for himself, which is probably the first time he's had to do that in quite some time.
Brooke Gladstone Yeah. The door thing that the door was partly open and he had to push it open the rest of the way. And this was considered some kind of comeuppance.
Alex Shephard We had known everything that was going to happen in these steps for weeks at this point. The kind of general beats were there, but there wasn't, I think, a real effort to educate people about what these charges are. I think you got some of it in the second day coverage.
Brooke Gladstone I'm not sure that I agree with you, though, because basically they had their legal experts coming in and coming out and people who had dealt with these kinds of charges or dealt with Trump. I honestly think the problem was, as so often is with cable news, is it's an electronic fireplace. You just have to keep something crackling on the hearth, even when there's nothing to crackle.
Alex Shephard Yeah, I think that that's it. For me the most newsworthy event was he made it from 57th Street to downtown in less than 10 minutes. It's like this is some kind of world record.
Brooke Gladstone What do you think, then? Should the talking heads have been focused on? The politics of the event, had been hashed out long before those pictures were available.
Alex Shephard The sense of this event in context, you got some of this in breathless question of will this be good for Donald Trump politically? But what you didn't get was the larger sense that this is the beginning of a quite long process. And I think that balancing two questions is something that the press has done a very bad job of in the last eight years, which is how do you mix the fact that this is something that is completely unprecedented, it is abnormal, it is strange, it is specific to Donald Trump with the fact that this is also part of a fairly normal and mundane legal process. If he was not a political figure, the odds of him pleading out to these charges would be significantly high. But you didn't really get that type of coverage. Even though there's all this time the networks had decided that they were going to do wall to wall coverage for about 36 hours. And yet you just kept spinning over the same two things, which were either how does Donald Trump feel about this and is this good for Donald Trump politically? I think this is also an opportunity to look at the larger Republican landscape right now. One of the things that's been funniest about the response is that a lot of Trump's rivals for the 2024 nomination have started griping a lot about coverage. Like, did you know that Nikki Haley visited the border last week? Because I didn't and I cover this stuff.
Brooke Gladstone Well, yeah. On the other hand, visits to the border. How important are they exactly?
Alex Shephard One of the things that Republican candidates are running into, which they also ran into in 2016 is that Donald Trump makes news and they don't. And they tend to gripe about the fact that they're not getting the same amount of coverage, but they're doing all the normal politician things that don't generate a lot of news coverage to begin with.
Brooke Gladstone Politico found that Republicans were at least some of them were incensed by the wall to wall coverage of the indictment. It feels like effing 2016, said Republican strategist for DeSantis. Do you have advice for Trump's media starved GOP opponents?
Alex Shephard Yeah. If you want to make news about Donald Trump, you should probably criticize Donald Trump. There's been, I think, a wariness and an unease about attaching their apple wagon to his star in the post January 6 world.
Brooke Gladstone Apple Wagon?
Alex Shephard I may have invented an idiom, but if you want to draw a contrast with Donald Trump, you have to draw the actual contrast. And instead, what we're seeing are the same kind of gymnastics that we saw in 2016. Ron DeSantis has both called this essentially a political witch hunt. He has said that he would not comply with any extradition order, even though there hasn't been one, which is, again, another form of political fanfiction. But he kind of made these snide, passive aggressive comments about, well, it looks like he paid hush money to a porn star. That's too cute by half. If you don't think that this person should be the nominee for doing the thing that he is getting indicted for, then you should say that. And I think Republican candidates are too afraid. And this is true of the Republican media to go out on a limb. You see this on Fox News as well. I think there's a concern that as soon as you do that, your viewers will flock to someone else. But that's how Donald Trump cake walked his way to the nomination in 2016. And that's happening again right now.
Brooke Gladstone So what did the coverage of Trump's indictment on right wing media look like?
Alex Shephard You have to go back a little bit. Since he left office, there really hasn't been a ton of it, which is a shift. I think Fox in particular has gotten Trumpier, particularly in the wake of their fear that was shot into them by the rise of networks like Newsmax. They cover immigration, foreign policy, crime in particular, in a more Trumpian way than even they did before. But Trump himself has not been the kind of dear leader figure that he was for much of his presidency.
Brooke Gladstone They basically pivoted. This had been widely noted to DeSantis.
Alex Shephard Yes. Yeah, exactly. I think he's somebody who feeds the machine in a similar way. Right. So you can go to DeSantis and you can get fights with Disney fights with schools about what books are being taught.
Brooke Gladstone Abortion. Don't say gay. We could go on and on. But you say that that changed in the past three weeks. It's been pro-Trump all the time and that you can't remember when there was this much fawning over him.
Alex Shephard It's truly been a bear hug. I mean, I think, you know, it's the first time that an entire episode of Tucker Carlson had been devoted to Trump in years, I think.
Brooke Gladstone Tucker Carlson, who said he hated him passionately. I don't know how he gets away with this. But then again, I think that may be written on the tombstone of the last ten years. It's the death of shame.
Alex Shephard Yeah and I think Carlson and Fox have adopted the Trump line here, that he is a kind of metaphor. He is a uniquely persecuted figure by the elite, and that makes him a stand in for his voters who have a variety of grievances and are also cast aside. What you've seen is Fox embracing that narrative wholeheartedly, that this is evidence of Trump's persecution.
Brooke Gladstone Fox's Jesse Watters said that conservatives simply couldn't live in blue cities for fear of political persecution. Tucker Carlson said there's no coming back from this moment.
Alex Shephard That's one of the things that I found most disturbing about the coverage here. There's a silliness to it. And yet, at its heart, I think there is this deepening authoritarianism that we've seen since the sort of lock her up Trump era of this increased willingness to weaponize the threat of legal action as part of Republican electoral politics. And it also, again, only serves to obscure the core fact here, right. Which is the charges in New York are legally complex because they essentially involve federal campaign violations. But he's being charged with crimes at the state level. The narrative here that Donald Trump paid hush money to influence the 2016 election, it's been well-established. I think his personal attorney has already served jail time for it. The facts of the case themselves are well-established. And yet on the right, they're being treated as a sort of grave prosecutorial misconduct. I think that that that's just profoundly misleading.
Brooke Gladstone Right. You wrote it all amounts to a kind of bizarro version of the 2016 Trump cycle, forcefully proclaiming that history slides seamlessly from tragedy to farce. But weren't there some lessons learned from 2016? I mean, a mark of progress noted by the media critic Jay Rosen was that by the end of the night, when Trump made his post arraignment speech, both MSNBC and NPR decided not to cover the remarks live. Here's a clip of Rachel Maddow explaining why.
News Clip And there's a cost to us as a news organization of knowingly broadcasting untrue things.
Brooke Gladstone Jay Rosen has said for quite a while that taking a beat before reporting on something is not the same thing as not reporting on it.
Alex Shephard Jay is is mostly right. I mean, the sort of arms race that we saw in '15 and '16 in which I think the networks were absolutely terrified that if they cut away from a Trump rally, that their viewers would just switch from CNN to Fox. That has long since dissipated. And I think as well, for me, the worst and and most traumatic aspect of Trump coverage was this idea that my assigning editor was not the guy who tells me what to what to write every day, but was, in fact, Donald Trump. And that that was true for the rest of the media and that he could sort of just direct the press's Eye of Sauron wherever he felt like it.
Brooke Gladstone But that's not the case now. I mean, though, CNN did cover the speech live. They did cut away to provide more context or fact check. I mean, there is progress.
Alex Shephard Yeah, There's this idea of, you know, treating the Trump show like it's this kind of endless Grateful Dead style tour has stopped. And yet the thing that concerns me about this is that, one, Donald Trump does do something newsworthy. And this was newsworthy. There will be a lot more other newsworthy things to come, including probably other indictments and arrests. The press has reverted back to this kind of wheel spinning, and I think that it bodes poorly for coverage of the primary itself because there are primaries last forever there, unless they're pretty boring. Donald Trump is rarely boring even when you're just judging, you know, what his scowl means. And I think that that sub's in for a lot of other at least more varied coverage. And I think that that's what, unfortunately, we're seeing a reversion to right now.
Brooke Gladstone Which outlet or reporters covered the indictment best?
Alex Shephard Well, so my my favorite coverage of the indictment was done by this website, Hell Gate, which is a relatively new New York City focused consortium.
Brooke Gladstone Yeah, that's a subscriber funded worker owned outlet principally about New York City. And I guess it's named after a bridge.
Alex Shephard Yes. Yeah, One of our many bridges. They did a couple of things. Well, I think one, they treated their coverage of the indictment as a circus in and of itself. They were they're very early. They were third in line. They're trying to sell their seat for $10,000 and get any takers. They balanced coverage of what was actually happening with a larger effort to educate and inform their readers about New York City's justice system. One of the best pieces that that they did and that I read in the indictment cycle was a view from the court with Donald Trump. And it was just coverage of the other people who are being arraigned and indicted that day. And I think that that gives you a sense of how the justice system in New York City actually works. That was not true of other outlets. Obviously, I don't expect CNN to go into a random courtroom. But what I do want is to get a sense of how the justice system works, how it's supposed to work, how it's expected to work, how it works for most people, and how it's working for Donald Trump. I didn't get that sense from a lot of outlets.
Brooke Gladstone The message does seem to be getting through that no one is above the law. That's a principle of democratic governance that's gotten a drubbing in recent years, according to an ABC News Ipsos poll. Trump's popularity has dropped to 25%. Why do you think?
Alex Shephard One of the things that stands out to me is that I think this criticism of media coverage during the Trump era, and particularly in the lead up to his election, that it was too kind, that it was to kid gloves, that the press was not really telling voters what was going on, that they were propping him up.
Brooke Gladstone And that's because they were trapped in the mores of a pre-Trump era, which in many ways was not great for journalism.
Alex Shephard Yes, and I agree with that sentiment for the most part. But I think it was also based on this premise that I thought was always a little rickety, which is that, you know, if only the press had really drilled into voters who this guy really was or what the implications of his election was, that that he would immediately it would be like The Wizard of Oz, you know, the whole facade would drop away and and we would get to, you know, all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. I think that there was another aspect, though, as well, which also became true. This is particularly true of some parts of Trump Russia coverage in that there was a willingness to speculate in hyperbolic ways that I think gave people the wrong expectations about what could possibly happen. I think for the most part, you saw it with some of the coverage and impeachment cycles that voters respond when Trump faces consequences for doing actual things. And I think what we saw with this is that as soon as Trump got indicted, independent voters in particular were like, okay, these charges are real. This is not something that people are just manically speculating about on cable news. I think that this also gets back to this other question of is attention paid to Trump good for him? I think based on this kind of bear hug that he's received on the right wing media, you know, it's probably good for him in the short term in the in terms of the Republican primary. But in general, getting wall to wall negative coverage about being arrested is not good for anybody and it's certainly not good for Donald Trump.
Brooke Gladstone I don't prognosticate. It's too terrifying when it comes to Trump. You just never know. I want to pivot to the punditry, given that I was out of the country last week and I hung out with a lot of journalists and newsreaders, and they all repeated what seemed to be the conventional wisdom here. They all said that these charges were the wrong ones to get Trump on. They weren't really important. It was a poor choice made by the prosecutors that also, at least as I read it, has been the judgment of our mainstream pundits. But having followed Trump punditry for eight years, I've seen how very wrong these pundits can be. Still, they're tastemakers of a kind. It's their job to have opinions. But when these consensuses arise, it kind of makes my skin crawl. Do you have any thoughts on that as kind of a pundit?
Alex Shephard Yes. I mean, I am a pundit. It's a dirty word, but I'll accept it. Yeah, I think they make me uncomfortable for a lot of reasons, I think. One is that there is a kind of implication that the prosecution itself is inherently political, that Alvin Bragg should be thinking about what the Department of Justice is going to do, what Georgia is going to do, and that this should be laid out in this sort of legal strategy that the Manhattan District attorney's office employs. I do not care for that. Just as a rule of law person in general. I think the other thing as well is that this is a thorny and complex case from a legal standpoint. And yet the idea that a crime was committed here, I think, you know, it's not especially controversial. And in that sense, the idea that this is somehow got to ultimately backfire, I think is just overstated. I think one of the things that the indictment in New York and the possible pending indictments elsewhere show is is an effort to, at the very least rebuild some barriers here, that if you pay a hush money in the lead up to an election, that you may face consequences for it. If you call the secretary of state of a swing state and say, hey, find me some votes, you may face consequences for it. If you hoard classified documents, mislead your attorneys and the federal government about what you have, you may face consequences for it.
Brooke Gladstone Alex, thank you very much.
Alex Shephard Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone Alex Shepherd is a staff writer at The New Republic. Thanks for listening to the midweek podcast. Tune in to the big show this weekend where we'll consider the steep price reporters pay for covering Russia in Russia. Exhibit A this week, of course, is Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. This is On the Media.
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