Last week, after managing to make it through 100 days in office, the president celebrated by going back out on the campaign trail. Donald Trump traveled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he delivered an hour-long reprisal of his greatest hits, including a dramatic reading of Al Wilson’s “The Snake” and a “Lock her up!” chant-along. The 2016 campaign has morphed into kitschy nostalgia with dizzying speed. He’s still playing stadiums, but mostly coasting on the strength of one fluke-hit novelty song. Imagine the Baha Men, only not in danger of being detained by immigration.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the White House press corps performed its own orgy of self-celebration, which had a similar air of desperation to Trump’s performance. While Trump was busy skewering the event from the podium in Pennsylvania, the idea of him haunted the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. As Trump railed against the “failing New York Times,” the WHCA handed out “First Amendment” pins to guests. As he dinged “fake news,” journalistic legends Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward spoke about using the truth to bring down the powerful.
This was the exact split-screen comparison the White House wanted. I imagine it’s what the WHCA was after, too. CNN dutifully aired it; MSNBC as well. The literally made-for-TV moment was the hook for plenty of stories that followed. In a way, both sides won the battle for positive spin, but the mutual obsession between the D.C. political class and the Trump White House means that the public is losing the larger war. The White House has declared the media the enemy, and the media is so thrilled by the designation, they seem to have forgotten who they are fighting for.
Trump critics have a tendency to respond to his dismissal of journalism by pointing to their own popularity. Think of the soaring subscriptions to the New York Times and the Washington Post. The equally sky-high ratings for Rachel Maddow and prime-time CNN. “How can the media be ‘failing’ if so many people are tuning in?” the logic goes. But ratings of political coverage are not the same as actual political engagement; viewership is not the same as voting. Even more to the point: If you confuse popularity with value, you fall into the trap that always catches Trump — praising autocrats and desperate to believe any urban legend that says he really won the popular vote.
The tone of Trump media coverage has mostly self-corrected from the “gee whiz, can you believe this guy is actually running!” that defined most of the election. Now, it’s either openly oppositional or flatly skeptical — appropriately so, I’d argue. But while the tone may have improved, news organizations have essentially been trolled into repeating propaganda. Yes, they correct Trump — writing up stories such as, “The president claims Obamacare is failing but really the health of the individual markets varies greatly,” or, to pick another one of the 492 lies he’s told since January 20, “Trump takes credit for $1 billion investment by Chrysler but really they had it planned since 2015” — but they’re still putting his fabrications into the national conversation. A certain percentage of the public will latch onto Trump’s fables. They will have “seen it on the news.” Debates will erupt. Energy will be wasted. (After all, an entire national security scandal has unfolded over Republicans’ attempts to reverse-engineer the truth into a Trump tweet.) And, even as prime time turns to late night, those people will still not actually be informed.
Trump critics have accepted as truth (and Trump proponents have tacitly admitted) that the president has not accomplished much in his first hundred days. But if that’s the case, reporters need to ask themselves how he’s still generated so much news, filled all that airtime and those booming front pages, despite this inaction. Put it another way: Is what Trump generates actually news? All those executive orders? Very few of them have had real, immediate policy implications. His off-the-cuff brain farts about history and foreign policy? Revealing, but not actionable. When we devote a lot of time and writing to Trump’s buffoonery, we’re not practicing journalism: We’re hate-watching, then giddily regurgitating. And ultimately, doing so just supports Trump: Our ratings-obsessed president doesn’t care why we’re tuning in.
I enjoy mocking Trump’s ignorance as much as the next coastal elitist, but I wish I had a #jordanedwards tweet for every Civil War joke. I wish I saw people crowd-sourcing iffy Immigration and Customs Enforcement practices with the same enthusiasm they put into sussing out Trump’s Russia connections. Did you know there’s an epidemic of people dying in local jails and that prison revolts are on the rise in this country? The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security are quietly loosening the tethers on local law enforcement while we’re all tuned into The Trump Family Variety Hour.
Personally, I have found myself turning, again and again, to beat reporters and specialized outlets in order to get a feel for what’s actually happening in the world. The Trace covers gun violence. The Marshall Project keeps an eye on criminal justice. The Climate Desk does the same on climate change. Pro Publica and the Center for Investigative Reporting are blessedly unchained from the news cycle and produce deep, long reads about issues from landlord abuses to pollution around schools. Kaiser Health News gets beyond the headlines on health care reform and STAT monitors the pulse of science and medicine. Have your read your local paper lately? You’re going to find vital stuff there, too. You will also find Trump-related news in all of those outlets, but largely without pointless frothing from Trump himself.
Trump’s incompetence is mesmerizing, I know. His shows of ignorance can be weirdly gratifying — “SEE! SEE! I TOLD YOU HE WAS AN IDIOT!” — when they’re not horrifying. But we in the media should think twice about giving space to his White House antics and executive-order performance art. Oppositional coverage isn’t the same as covering that which needs to be opposed.