What Do We Do?
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. We devote this hour to the question put to us pretty much hourly since Election Day: How do you cover a president who seems impervious to the normal constraints of civility, checks and balances, traditional values and, most importantly, reality, who threatens the press, while firing off tweets like a Gatling gun, with proposals ranging from the unlawful to the impossible to the indecipherable?
Well, Bob spent the week talking to our colleagues in a profession that, as we know, did not cover itself with glory during the campaign, to learn if they've gotten any closer to an answer.
BOB GARFIELD: This is where I'm supposed to establish the premise for a story about covering the Donald Trump presidency, but no need for that. Ray Locker of USA Today has done it for me.
RAY LOCKER: He abides by none of the normal rules that anybody who has been elected president abides by.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, inauguration is still seven weeks away and we’re already in Bizarro World, his own victory rally –
DONALD TRUMP: Oh, you’re gonna be happy, we’re all gonna be happy. I’m here today for one main reason, to say thank you to Ohio.
[CROWD CHEERS/END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: A coming-to-your-TV-soon news conference, like a David Blaine special, in which Trump promises to make his worldwide conflicts of interest disappear.
ROBERT WEISSMAN: The president has to divest himself of these business holdings to avoid these conflicts, covering everything from worker health and safety issues, worker rights that you were discussing, treatment of government contractors, to consumer protection…
BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, late-night tirades on Twitter. This is not, to say the least, how presidents-elect typically elect to begin being president. And so, the media are being consumed in a surreal new reality, one in which USA Today, the simultaneously colorful and colorless nation’s newspaper, has already accused the incoming president of spreading a malicious lie.
RAY LOCKER: We would not use that word “bogus” in a headline with other presidents.
BOB GARFIELD: Ray Locker, USA Today's Washington enterprise editor.
RAY LOCKER: I mean, there was skepticism about George W. Bush and the reason to go into Iraq in 2003. There were questions about whether there were weapons of mass destruction there. But nobody out and out said the president was a liar, and I think that's a big difference with Trump. By virtue of that kind of behavior, you have to change the rules of engagement.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, let's begin there. Politicians, of course, have been lying since Cicero, but never has there been a president who lies so frequently, so casually and so transparently as Donald Trump.
MICHAEL ORESKES: When the president-elect put out a tweet on Sunday night claiming that there were millions of fraudulent votes cast in this election –
BOB GARFIELD: Michael Oreskes is NPR’s senior vice president of news.
MICHAEL ORESKES: - when there is no evidence of millions of fraudulent votes, so, therefore, he was, in effect, saying that the secretary of states of 50 states, Republicans and Democrats, were lying about the results in their states.
BOB GARFIELD: But they weren't. Trump was, or, at the very least, passing on an utterly paranoid meme gleaned from tinfoil hat outposts of talk radio, social media and the Internet, the star of the freakiest reality show ever passing out toxic lies like John D. Rockefeller passed out shiny new dimes, demonstrating that being elected president hasn't changed his stripes from the days of birtherism and nonexistent Jersey City Muslims cheering the fall of the Twin Towers.
Now, “bogus” may be strong language for USA Today but not for the Huffington Post. For the last nine months of the campaign, HuffPo added a postscript disclaimer to every article about Trump, identifying him as a, quote, “serial liar,” “rampant xenophobe,” “racist,” “birther” and “bully” who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims, 1.6 billion members of an entire religion, from entering the US.
A year ago, BuzzFeed editors permitted their new staff to refer to the Republican hopeful as a, quote, “mendacious racist.” And Washington Bureau Chief John Stanton says that privilege hasn't been revoked.
JOHN STANTON: If he pursues policies that are racist, if he says things that are racist, we will not shy away from saying it’s such. And if someone says racist things or does racist things, as proposed in policies that are based in some sort of a race-based kind of notion, then I mean that’s what they believe in, so they should own it, frankly.
BOB GARFIELD: PuffPo and BuzzFeed felt good about themselves for calling a thing by its name and perhaps made many readers feel validated. But what if something precious is lost in the process, such as precision and trust? On such grounds, no matter what prevarications may be in the offing, NPR, for instance, has no interest in calling Donald Trump a liar.
MICHAEL ORESKES: You're right, we did during the campaign, explicitly and clearly said that we didn't want to use that word.
BOB GARFIELD: NPR's Michael Oreskes.
MICHAEL ORESKES: We didn't think it added anything to the conversation. I think the most important thing we do as journalists is the reporting, the shoe leather, the establishing of accurate facts and the presentation of them. And anything that gets between us and our audiences about that is to me less significant.
BOB GARFIELD: Trust of the public, the credibility question, and it’s kind of the elephant in the room because it is very clear that large percentages of Trump voters simply discount anything that comes from the so-called “mainstream media” and probably NPR, in particular. Heaven knows that Republican legislators have been trying to defund NPR for years on various grounds but the most prominent being that it supposedly has a leftist tilt, that it's partisan. Should we be weighing the risk that by being more direct in our reporting language simply confirms the worst suspicions on the right about the fairness and integrity and credibility of NPR and the rest of the so-called “mainstream media”?
MICHAEL ORESKES: No, I wouldn’t do it for that reason. I would recommend to put the reporting front and center. It's better to be calm in your language and forceful in your facts.
KATHLEEN CARROLL: I think we need to engage the audiences wherever we find them, and we do that by respecting their intelligence. And respecting their intelligence means putting what we know out there in front of them in - instead of just asserting things and asking them to trust our judgments on it.
BOB GARFIELD: Kathleen Carroll is executive editor of the Associated Press, which also will shy away from the L word. To counter false narratives it will rely, as always, on fact checks.
KATHLEEN CARROLL: I mean, the AP’s done fact checks on candidates since you and I were both small children, but what we did differently in the last campaign, and particularly in this one, was move those from being an exclusively separate fixture to adding more that fact check material into the stories themselves, to making sure that the fact checks were completely proximate to whatever was being uttered, like in the same sentence.
BOB GARFIELD: On the theory that facts are, you know, illuminating and that there's a robust demand for them. But this election was a bear market for documentable reality.
RASHIDA JONES: We’re fact checking and we’re fact checking and we’re fact checking, and the audience, in a loud and bold way, is saying, it doesn't matter to us.
BOB GARFIELD: MSNBC's Daytime Managing Editor Rashida Jones.
RASHIDA JONES: We did so many focus groups during this election where we talk about the fact that there were gaps between truth and what they were hearing, and the responses were resoundingly, it doesn't matter to us because we care about this other thing that our candidate is going to do.
BOB GARFIELD: The MSNBC news room continued to truth squad the race, of course.
RASHIDA JONES: Even though it made us, in many cases, the villain in some people's eyes because we were attacking, we were targeting, when, in actuality, we were doing our jobs.
BOB GARFIELD: Ah, villainy, disgusting, dishonest, corrupt, unfair partisans viciously – well, you’ve seen it - quoting Trump verbatim. The media aren't a fourth estate but a fifth column of subversives, hellbent on making America un-great. At Trump’s rallies, angry followers jeered at the journalists, cursed them, spat on them, even as the media gave Trump the publicity oxygen on which his incendiary insurgency fed.
DONALD TRUMP: These are very, very dishonest people.
I love this stuff. Should I go on with this just a little bit longer?
I love it.
RASHIDA JONES: President-elect Trump spent 18 months, day after day, after day, after day programming to the audience, and we were projecting it to millions of people every day: Tthey’re taking my honest words and they’re turning them around. Hate them, turn around, point at them, jeer at them, spit at them. I mean, these are things that happened at the rallies. For a lot of his followers, they respect him; they see him as, as change, they see him as the future. They hear that, they listen to that. It gets into the universe, and we’re at a point now where 18 months of that kind of programming, he's made the story about us, 18 months of bad relationships and making us the villains for him to be the hero.
BOB GARFIELD: And the election changes nothing. Just this week on his so-called “Thank You Tour” –
DONALD TRUMP: And we won it big! But then the people back there, the extremely dishonest press –
- very dishonest people.
BOB GARFIELD: So will MSNBC adjust to the marketplace, trade in feelings and perceptions to cultivate credibility by subordinating mere credible information? Jones swears it won't.
RASHIDA JONES: That at the end of the day, we didn't join this field, we didn't, we didn't become a part of this industry to just appease the audience. There are stories that we’re going to cover that it may not be sexy for the audience. We might have to put a little bit of sugar in the medicine, but we’re still going to do that thing that is required as journalists, which is being honest and truthful and, and holding people accountable. If not - if not us, then who?
BOB GARFIELD: Exactly, which is why Trump is already busy, big-league, making it harder for her. He’s done only a very few interviews, has given virtually no access to the press corps and, as hinted, he won't even accommodate a press pool in his official travels. Instead, the president-elect favors communicating with the world via Twitter.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A Donald Trump Twitter rant, calling the recount a scam and Hillary Clinton a hypocrite for getting behind it, and that's not all.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Trump sat down with a series of potential picks for key administration position but he still found the time to launch a Twitter rant against the most popular show on Broadway.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: President-elect Donald Trump in a new overnight Twitter rant, his beef this time, journalists asking for evidence behind his claims of huge voter fraud. So far, there is none.
BOB GARFIELD: The unabridged real Donald Trump Twitter feed isn't exactly a collection of rigorous musings. It's more like an EEG of the Trumpian id, presenting yet another quandary. On the one hand, random incendiary comments may be too plentiful and too trivial to focus on. On the other hand, whenever the US president speaks, the whole world pays attention.
Rich Lowry is the editor of the conservative National Review. RICH LOWRY: I hope that as president he uses Twitter less as a public advertisement for his various resentments and obsessions [LAUGHS]. And, as you point out, if he actually, you know, starts tweeting at a, a foreign leader or a foreign entity or foreign institutions that have irked him the way he does, you know, at CNN and, and others, that could be very bad and very consequential.
BOB GARFIELD: You paid very little attention to the voter fraud allegation but you covered the “Hamilton” incident pretty thoroughly. How do you approach what matters and what doesn't?
RICH LOWRY: Well, we’re a conservative publication, so the things that are gonna strike us as more interesting and outrageous and telling are gonna be different from folks on the other side of the political spectrum. And we have always been against politically hectoring actors and Hollywood celebrities, so the “Hamilton” thing was kind of in our sweet spot.
BOB GARFIELD: Meantime, nobody in the media would dare unfollow him. Carlos Chirinos is senior politics editor at Univision, a news organization that made an early mark in the presidential campaign when star anchor Jorge Ramos confronted Trump’s hate speech. With no guarantees of White House access, Univision now begins every reporting day reading Trump’s Twitter stream.
CARLOS CHIRINOS: Just in case he woke up earlier than us and decided to post [LAUGHS] anything of interest. We don’t particularly like tweeted statements. We would prefer to have him on our press conference, we would prefer to have him on one-on-one, you know, answers and Q&A, our traditional Q&A.
BOB GARFIELD: You know what my mom used to tell me?
CARLOS CHIRINOS: What?
BOB GARFIELD: Bobby, don't wish your life away.
CARLOS CHIRINOS: [LAUGHS] Well, wise, very wise.
BOB GARFIELD: Still, just because the exercise is pathetic doesn't mean it's unimportant. As Ray Locker says –
RAY LOCKER: It's all part of the story of covering Donald Trump, what he's about and how he does business.
BOB GARFIELD: And part of that coverage is knowing you’re being suckered in the process because these Twitter storms invariably divert public attention from matters of far greater significance, such as $25 million fraud settlements, conflicts of interest and racist advisors, which some people think is Trump’s strategy, a 17-million-follower smokescreen. To address that, let's end this dance with the guy who brung us, USA Today's Ray Locker, who says he doesn't believe that Trump is all that, well, strategic but that whatever the president-elect's motives, we’re wise to pay attention.
RAY LOCKER: I think when the history is written, the tweets will be a large part of that because it tells you about how he is and what he's doing.
BOB GARFIELD: And finally, while Trump’s campaign behavior hasn't changed, the stakes have. Words have consequences. Courts have authority. Nations have economies and armies. The whole world, including the media world, is taking note one bitter tweet at a time.
RAY LOCKER: But look at some of the great reporting that’s been done during this campaign. That information was out there, it's never gonna go away. And now when he moves into the White House and people see how he conducts himself, all that stuff’s gonna come back. It always accumulates. It’s like lead in your body. Eventually, you get to the toxicity level and you die.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: But the key word here is “eventually.” If good information is a cure for the body politic, it is not a guarantee because antidotes don't work if they’re administered improperly or too late or if they’re rejected by the host.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how words become weapons in an autocracy, from someone who knows.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media.