Micah Loewinger: From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media, I'm Micah Loewinger. This week, a mixed bag of narratives about the GOP and its presumptive nominee. On Tuesday, Republicans suffered a raft of defeats at the polls.
News clip: Overnight, Democrats celebrating a series of key victories with Ohioans voting to guarantee abortion access in striding that right into the state's constitution.
News clip: Meanwhile in Kentucky, incumbent Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, fending off a challenge from Republican Attorney General, Daniel Cameron.
Andy Beshear: The Democrats won decisively in Virginia, even flipped a chamber in an off-year election. That's unheard of.
News clip: Last night, all four candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty in one Minnesota district lost to Democrats. In North Carolina, the candidate the group supported in a contested district also lost to a Democrat. In Iowa, 12 of the 13 candidates backed by Moms for Liberty were wiped out.
News clip: Book banning is unpopular. Who knew?
Micah Loewinger: Meanwhile, the Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump spent his week back in court. He's there a lot these days. Although he hasn't exactly gone quietly.
News clip: Trump took a combative stance on the witness stand yesterday attacking the judge, the prosecutors, and the case itself. It was an extraordinary moment in that courtroom yesterday. The former president bringing the grievances heard from him so often on social media into live testimony from the [crosstalk]
News clip: At one point, judge Engoron reminded Trump, "This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom."
Micah Loewinger: The former president has racked up 91 felony charges across four criminal cases in New York, Florida, Georgia, and Washington, D.C. Not that all those hours in court or under gag orders has toned down his talk of 2024.
Donald Trump: 2024 is our final battle. Stand with me in the fight. We will finish the job that we started so brilliantly seven years--
Micah Loewinger: That job, as reported by The Washington Post this week, consists of a plan to fill the swamp.
News clip: Trump and his allies are mapping out ways to fill the justice department with lackeys to investigate Trump critics, working on plans to potentially invoke the insurrection act on his first day in office to allow him to deploy the military against civil demonstrations.
Micah Loewinger: Despite all that, according to a much-discussed poll from Siena College in the New York Times this week, if the election were held today, Donald Trump would win.
News clip: The bottom line is that the New York Times has Joe Biden down in five to six swing states that he won in 2020 to Donald Trump. The poll also shows that nearly one quarter of Black voters support President Trump. That's an unheard of number.
Micah Loewinger: We've said this so many times on the show, but it bears repeating. General election polls a year out are not reliable.
Dan Froomkin: The thing to keep in mind is that polls are like candy for reporters. They can't get enough of them and they love gorging on them, whether or not they're really significant.
Micah Loewinger: Dan Froomkin is the editor of presswatchers.org, an independent nonprofit site about political journalism. He's been writing about how the press are failing news consumers.
Dan Froomkin: To the extent that there was a message in the polling, to me, it was a message to the editors of our largest news organizations saying the American public seems to be confused about a lot of stuff, because practically speaking, if they think that Donald Trump could do a better job with the economy than Joe Biden, they're probably under the impression that the economy is in the toilet right now, and it's not.
Micah Loewinger: Do you have trouble on this point, though, that there is a disconnect between "How the economy is doing and how that is relating to people's expenses, the amount of money they have in their bank account." We live in a country with deep income inequality, a lack of social safety net. Is it possible that both are true?
Dan Froomkin: No, I think you raise a very good point. I'm not saying the economy is great for everybody, but what's happened is that the Republican talking points that the economy is in the toilet, that inflation is destroying people's lives, is an exaggeration, and yet it gets picked up by the press and certainly doesn't get disavowed by the press.
Micah Loewinger: On Press Watch, your site, you wrote about some recent reporting from The New York Times and The Washington Post, looking into Trump's intention to select political appointees who will unquestioningly follow his orders and turn the prosecutorial power of the Justice Department against his political opponents. This was essential reporting of what he plans to do on day one if he's reelected, but at the same time, you felt that something was lacking from this coverage.
Dan Froomkin: These two articles were fantastic in some ways in that they really looked at how would Trump govern, how would Trump be the president, which is something that is too often overlooked in the day-in, day-out incremental horse race coverage. What you're seeing is that elite journalists in our top institutions lack the vocabulary and the mechanics that are really necessary to accurately cover Trump right now. They can't bring themselves to say that he is delusional. They can't bring themselves to say that he's a would-be dictator.
These articles, if you read them, to a discerning reader, describe Trump's plans pretty alarmingly. They're getting rid of any obstacle to the abuse of power, gearing up to throw political opponents in prison, preparing to unleash the military on peaceful domestic protests.
Micah Loewinger: Using the Insurrection Act.
Dan Froomkin: Using the Insurrection Act. The language was so understated. In journalism, we often look for what's called net graph, which is the summary paragraph. In this case, the end of the net graph was, and I have it right here, "Critics have called such ideas dangerous and unconstitutional." That's the construction of a story that has two sides that are equally valid. One is, person A says this, and critics say, "He's wrong." That's no longer adequate construction for what's going on in this political climate.
Micah Loewinger: How do you do a better job writing that story?
Dan Froomkin: Well, I did, in Press Watch. I actually literally rewrote the tops of both of those stories. You write things like, close allies of Donald Trump are paving the way for dictatorship should he win a second term in office in 2024.
Micah Loewinger: You don't think that's too strong?
Dan Froomkin: I don't think it's too strong if you then back it up. What I'm looking for is not hysteria, it's not hyperbole, it's accuracy. I don't think it's accurate to say that it's just critics who have slight concerns over what Trump is doing. What is accurate is that what he's talking about doing would close 250 years of history, would violate 50 years of standards that we've established since Watergate. These are absolutely essential facts that are hidden when the language is tame and the criticism is meek.
Micah Loewinger: I want to ask you about the coverage of Trump's civil fraud case this week. For those who haven't been following it, the New York Attorney General has already proven fraud that Trump knowingly overinflated the value of his properties to get loans from banks, and what is being decided now by the judge is how much he will pay in penalties. On Monday, he took the stand under oath. This was a historic event. How was the coverage?
Dan Froomkin: If you were following it in the live blogs on social media, what you heard was an astonishing story of somebody who was completely unhinged, who was completely delusional, who was smirking, who was making faces, who was being provocative, who was taunting the judge, but then the articles all came out and they said things like, "Trump defends himself and attacks judge."
What's essentially happening is these articles cover up for Trump's unhingedness. They basically summarize a lot of things that were crazy into a few sentences that aren't crazy. I think it's very deceptive. I think that people who read the main story the next morning had no idea what really happened that day.
Micah Loewinger: On one hand, he gets to put on a show, make it seem like it's a witch hunt, rile up consumers of the right-wing media who would be happy to see that he [laughs] was barking like a mad dog at the judge and at the attorney general, but for the legitimate press, it just seems like, well, yes, if you're a defendant, then you're angry and you make a case for yourself, right?
Dan Froomkin: I remember watching the coverage of the COVID pandemic under Trump and he'd get up and he'd say something completely nonsensical. Reporters would fall all over themselves trying to make sense of it and explain what he just said as opposed to reporting Donald Trump just said a bunch of stuff that made no sense. My take right now is that people are less interested in covering his unhinged statements because they're afraid that they'll be giving him publicity, they'll be helping him spread disinformation and misinformation.
Micah Loewinger: That was one of the lessons from the Trump era, right? Don't just cover everything he says.
Dan Froomkin: Amplifying him does reward him and does risk even further radicalizing his supporters, but you can't ignore it when this guy who could be the president is saying things that are just nuts. I have a proposal here, which I've made in my website, which is that when he's unhinged, yes, you report what he said. What you do then is you go and you talk to his supporters, you go talk to the Republican leaders and to his base and the people who support him and say, "Do you agree with what he just said? How can that be? What's going on there? Is there no limit to what he could say and you'd still support him?"
The news value to me of an incremental unhinged statement by Donald Trump is he said this and the Republican party still supports him because that's astonishing.
Micah Loewinger: Dan, this feels like deja vu all over again. We've been hearing warnings from press critics for years now about how to cover Donald Trump in the right way. Just this week, Margaret Sullivan published a piece in The Guardian titled The Public Doesn't Understand the Risks of a Trump Victory. That's the media's fault.
Dan Froomkin: Great piece.
Micah Loewinger: I agree that we have culpability here and that we could do it better, but it's also the case that facts don't seem to change minds like they used to. There have been warnings of his dangers to our democracy, and you could argue there aren't enough, but perhaps they're just not sticking.
Dan Froomkin: The press critics have been saying stuff like this for years now. That's absolutely correct, and they've not been heard. I think that at some point, it may sink in. We may have to wait until the next generation of editors. The leaders of our newsrooms have just gotten used to still covering what is basically an asymmetrical political climate as if there are two equal parties involved in the discussion.
My feeling is at some point, one of these editors is going to wake up, look in the mirror, and say, "Wait a minute. We're not doing this right. We need to reset because we are not successfully informing the American electorate." I felt this way back when two-thirds of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. News organizations at some point need to say, "Whoa, what we're doing isn't working." That's what I think people like Margaret Sullivan and Jay Rosen and I and a whole bunch of other people who've been saying this for a while are saying, "Stop what you're doing, realize that it's not actually getting the job done of informing the American people, and figure out how else to do it."
Micah Loewinger: Dan, thank you very much.
Dan Froomkin: Thank you.
Micah Loewinger: Dan Froomkin is the editor of Press Watch, an independent nonprofit site about political journalism. Coming up, podcasting's first boom and bust cycle. This is On the Media.
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