Hey, media: Real news doesn’t always start with Trump tweets

Remember when Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for 11 minutes? If only that were permanent.

The nation’s media made a collective decision after the 2016 election on how to cover Donald Trump’s tweets. Too bad it was the wrong decision.

Yes, he’s the president, and the media are obliged to cover what he says and does. They are not, however, obliged to regurgitate in full the growing number of lies that fit into 280 characters or less. Yet that’s what they’ve chosen to do.

A Trump tweet is not necessarily “breaking news,” and it’s lazy, irresponsible, and shallow for news media to treat all of his tweets that way. But why should Trump change? He tweets, and the media fall over each other to report that. Trump’s tweets drive every news cycle. Trump is playing the media like Nero played the fiddle.

As president, Trump has told more than 3,000 lies, according to both The Washington Post and CNN. The number grows daily. Yet not a day goes by when a Trump tweet — lies and all — isn’t repeated or printed in full by a newspaper, radio station, or broadcast or cable news station.

Although most news media are getting better at pointing out afterward when Trump isn’t telling the truth (Is he breathing? Then he’s not telling the truth), they’re giving him an open platform to sell his lies. And that’s the problem.

Just like during the 2016 campaign, when cable stations ran lengthy Trump speeches in full, without commentary, these days the media breathlessly report every misspelled, ungrammatical, and incorrectly capitalized missive thumbed into his unsecured mobile phone, either written by him or typed from a tweet prewritten by an aide. The viewer, listener, or reader is left with his or her first impression: the tweeted lie.

Often, that’s where the impression ends. And that’s the problem.

Many media outlets are doing an excellent job uncovering the truth about corruption in the Trump administration. But when too many start each news cycle with “President Trump tweeted today,” then Trump has defined the narrative once again. Trump deliberately sends out tweets in the morning to lead the news cycle, and the media comply without giving any context or pointing out his obvious lies.

“Trump is winning his effort to demonize Mueller,” declared the front-page headline on a CNN analysis by Z. Byron Wolf, on a blog usually written by Chris Cillizza, which claimed that Trump’s mantra of repeatedly tweeting “WITCH HUNT” and “NO COLLUSION” and “SPYGATE” was turning at least some Americans against special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence on the Trump campaign. “In large part, he’s winning it because he’s the only one arguing right now,” the analysis claimed.

Actually, if Trump is “winning,” it’s because CNN and all other media give him a free and open platform to repeat his lies.

If the Mueller investigation is viewed as a partisan witch hunt — and there’s no evidence that’s what it is — then Trump has won the political argument. … Republicans, Trump’s base, have responded. … Republicans are souring on the investigation.

Not just Republicans: A shrinking number of Americans think the Mueller investigation should continue — only 54 percent, compared with 60 percent in March and 62 percent in July 2017. A growing number — 43 percent, versus 33 percent last summer — think it’s time for the special counsel to wrap things up.

And the tweeted repetition of NO COLLUSION NO COLLUSION NO COLLUSION has had an effect: Other polling shows that 59 percent of Americans don’t know that Mueller and his team have uncovered any crimes, despite the five guilty pleas and 17 indictments.

In response, Raw Story pointed out the obvious. “Trump was likely in search of headlines when he embarked on the campaign to undermine Mueller. With the article on Cillizza’s blog, Trump has already achieved part of his goal.”

It’s been more than a year since Trump has held a solo news conference (Feb. 16, 2017 — The Washington Post keeps a running count), and that was the only formal news conference he has held as president. (He answers some informal questions from gaggles of reporters, although he usually ignores shouted queries, and answers a few questions alongside other world leaders.) In their first years in office, other presidents were more available: Barack Obama held 11 solo news conferences, George W. Bush held four, Bill Clinton held 14, and George H.W. Bush held 26.

Trump knows he doesn’t need to hold the kind of news conference that every other president did. Why should he, when he’s got the media to deliver a one-sided view — his — of his message? When the media spout the exact wording of his tweets, he can avoid answering hard questions and bypass any media filters.

“The media seems just as addicted to Trump’s tweets as he is to Twitter,” said an analysis in Medium, giving some reasons why such über-coverage is so harmful.

  • The tweets exploit the media to spread his message beyond his loyal Twitter following and his core base.
  • Trump’s tweets divert our attention away from the real issues (tax reform, health care act, abolishing net neutrality, corruption) that should matter.
  • Concentrating on tweets leads to a mental fatigue on the part of the audience, which is long beyond the point of being properly outraged by every new tweet typed out on Trump’s phone.

Medium offered several reasons why media should turn off their Trump Twitter obsession.

  • The tweets help to legitimize fringe views and push them into the mainstream.
  • They allow Trump to set the agenda, or at least shape it.
  • His tweets often serve as a means of distraction.
  • They crowd out more important issues.

The analysis also offered some solutions in the form of questions that news media need to answer before spewing out a Trump tweet in knee-jerk fashion.

  • Is his tweet news? If the answer is “no,” then why should it still be covered?
  • What are the risks? What is at stake if a Trump tweet which promotes fringe or extreme views is being covered?
  • Establish context. Why is Trump tweeting about this right now? It may be just a distraction.
  • Add context to coverage. “If you have to report, try to phrase headlines differently. Don’t say ‘Donald Trump retweets racist anti-Muslim videos.’ Do say: ‘Donald Trump retweets racist anti-Muslim videos in an attempt to distract from Russia probe.’ ”

This tweet summed it up:

Nicolle Wallace of MSNBC had the right reaction when she recently stopped reading Trump’s tweets on the air in the middle of a sentence. According to an account in The Hill:

“I’m not reading any more of this,” Wallace said with a laugh. “These are boldface lies and as his audacity and his sort of fantasies expand, I wonder what role you think the truth plays in this for any of them.”

What role does truth play? Very little, if any at all.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on June 3, 2018.

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