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The Media Needs A New Set Of Rules For Covering Trump

President Donald Trump speaks to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
President Donald Trump speaks to the media before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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Now that nearly all the votes are counted, we have a pretty clear picture of the basic message sent by voters in 2018 midterms. Most of them don’t trust the president, and want a check on his power.

Nearly 116 million Americans voted, or half the eligible voters, which represents the highest midterm percentage in a century. Republicans may have held on to their majority in the Senate, but 10 million more Americans voted for Democratic candidates, which translated to a gain of nearly 40 seats in the House.

Only the GOP’s shameless use of voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the Senate’s tilt toward white rural voters kept the blue wave from becoming a tsunami.

The American people have spoken. What they’ve said, quite plainly, is that they’re tired of Donald Trump’s shtick: his lies and taunts, his Twitter tantrums, his conspiracy theories. They want to hear about the policy ideas that Democrats ran on, from universal health care to sensible gun control to a federal minimum wage to anti-corruption measures.

The fundamental problem is that our Fourth Estate hasn’t gotten the memo. Or rather, they’ve chosen to disregard the memo. allowing Trump to drive the news cycle, he appears powerful to his followers, which is central to his strongman mystique.

Instead, they continue to cover Trump as if he were a normal president, the sort who tells the truth and accepts the rule of law and doesn’t incite violence, the sort who makes some discernible effort to govern, and to represent all Americans.

They do this partly out of habit, partly out of hope, but mostly because they know Trump’s antics and accusations attract attention, which translates into revenues.

Trump’s singular talent, in fact, resides in his ability to exploit the media. He’s able to do this because his life as a celebrity-cum-politician long ago revealed to him the bug in the modern mass media system: it cannot resist conflict, scandal, the tawdry and tumultuous.

The media continues to take the bait every time Trump lashes out, flouts common sense and common decency, floats a conspiracy theory, and/or fumes in paranoid nonsense circles.

News outlets do this even when it is perfectly apparent — as it was in the weeks preceding the midterms — that they are boosting a deadly signal by sending out their crews to serve as hate props at his rallies.

Trump roars about fake news, then laughs as legitimate media outlets slavishly cover his every fake utterance. Even the media who debunk his nonsense are doing his bidding. Because Trump knows what any junior level ad exec knows: that false claims, if repeated often enough, come to feel true. What’s more, by allowing Trump to drive the news cycle, he appears powerful to his followers, which is central to his strongman mystique.

Take the caravan, for instance. To gin up fear among his base, he portrayed a mass of helpless refugees as a deadly invading force.

Every single major media outlet covered the caravan claptrap in the week before the midterms, choosing to keep the focus on racial incitement (the GOP’s preferred terrain, alas) rather than the party’s efforts to strip people of their health care, disenfranchise voters, protect the NRA and coddle corporations. Now that the election is over, you don’t hear anything about deadly caravan because it was all a ploy.

Years ago, propaganda campaigns like this had to migrate from the fringe of our discourse. Now that their chief source resides in the Oval Office, our free press faces an epistemological crisis. They are up against a president who is literally blasting the truth out of people’s heads, and replacing it with paranoid fantasies.

If the Fourth Estate wants to stem the tide of Trump’s authoritarian impulses and lethal incitement and misinformation, it has to radically change the way it covers this president.

This will require more than a few outlets opting out of airing his rallies. Instead, the heads of the major newspapers and TV networks would do well to establish and publicly announce a set of New Rules specifically designed to silence his misinformation.

No coverage of his blathering unless he proposes actual policies, or signs an executive order. No coverage of his rallies. No coverage of his tweets. No coverage of his press conferences. No coverage of his lies or his feuds or his boorish behavior.

This sounds radical. It’s not.

It’s simply a return to a pattern of coverage in which reporters and editors focus on what the administration is doing. With the current administration, that would mean coverage of its self-dealing corruption, the effects of its deregulation, its radical reshaping of the judiciary, and its efforts to target vulnerable populations.

Fewer resources devoted to The Trump Show would mean more devoted to covering the policy remedies put forward by politicians who want the government to solve problems, not serve as entertainment.

A demagogue with a broken megaphone can only sow so much discord.

Obviously, the right-wing media politburo will continue to do Trump’s bidding. But his raving will come to seem more marginalized and less potent, as happened with our last unhinged president, Andrew Johnson. A demagogue with a broken megaphone can only sow so much discord.

In announcing these New Rules, media outlets should call on citizens to do their part, by turning away from the foul wind of this president’s rhetoric.

I realize that most readers will react to this proposal by smugly declaring that it will never happen. But I’m not arguing that it’s going to happen. I’m arguing that it should happen, for the good of our democracy.

The entire “Trump movement” arose from the oxygen of relentless attention. It’s how a preening scam artist was elevated from a Reform Party also-ran to the GOP frontrunner. American voters sent a clear message in last week’s election: no more feeding the troll in the White House — even, and especially, when he roars.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.


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