Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the US public is the current president of the United States. For three years this has been a massive – and unsolved – problem for the country and its political leadership.
But now it is life and death. On everything that involves the coronavirus, Donald Trump’s public statements have been unreliable. On top of that, the president is using the powers he won by election to destroy public confidence in the results of the next election. That’s why the news media need to shift their coverage to an emergency setting, and treat his presidency as an active threat to our democracy.
This means the media should be exiting from the normal system for covering presidents – which Trump himself exited long ago by using the microphone we have handed him to spread thousands of false claims, even as he undermines trust in the presidency and the press. True: he is not obliged to answer questions from journalists. But neither are they obligated to assist him in misinforming the American people about the spread of the virus, and what is actually being done by his government.
Switching to emergency mode
Switching to emergency mode means press coverage will look different and work in a different way, as it tries to prevent the president from misinforming the public. Here are my major recommendations:
- Don’t cover live any speech, rally, or press conference involving the president. The risk of passing along bad information is too great. Instead, attend carefully to what he says. If you can independently verify any important news he announces, then bring that to the audience – after the verification step.
- Suspend normal relations with the Trump White House. Don’t attend briefings. Don’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter. Don’t join in any off-the-record “background” sessions with administration officials. Don’t enter into agreements of any kind with the Trump team, which includes those nameless “senior advisers” who mysteriously show up in news stories.
- Add a further check to every quote from public officials, including Trump. In addition to, “Does this fairly represent what he said?” ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying? If it is simply meant to demonise a group of people, rewrite a history that now embarrasses the president, or extend his hate campaign against journalists who are doing their job, consider not amplifying it, even though it happened. An old tenet of White House reporting states that what the president says makes news – automatically, as it were. Disable that autoplay system and replace it with a manual one.
- In general, try to shift the focus of coverage from what Trump is saying to what his government is doing. Try de-emphasising the entire White House beat and adding people who can penetrate the bureaucracy from the rim, rather than the centre of the distortion machine.
- What journalists can achieve is limited by the public’s confidence in the media. So consider hiring a public editor who is empowered to field complaints, decide if something went wrong, find out how it happened, and report back.
- Experience has taught us that there will occasionally be times when the president makes a demonstrably false claim, or floats a poisonous lie, and it is too consequential to ignore. In those special cases, adopt a news writing formula that has been called the “truth sandwich”. It is a more careful way of reporting newsworthy falsehoods. First you state what is true. Then you report the false statement. Then you repeat what is true. Like so:
In January and February, the president minimised the danger of the coronavirus. "We have it totally under control," he said on 22 January. But two days ago he tried to erase that fact and escape accountability for his prior statements. "I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic," he said. If we judge by his public statements this is an outright lie. On 27 February, at a White House meeting he said: "It’s going to disappear. One day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear."
Refusing to go with live coverage. Suspending normal relations with his White House. Always asking: is this something we should amplify? A focus on what he’s doing, not on what he’s saying. The truth sandwich when we feel we have to highlight his false claims.
This is what you can expect from news coverage that has been switched to an emergency setting.
An active threat
But what if working in this emergency setting isn’t enough? Then the media need to shift gears and start treating Donald Trump’s presidency as the active threat to democracy it is.
What do we mean by an active threat? Donald Trump is using his presidential powers to try to destroy public confidence in the results of the next election.
For example: “A Wall Street Journal review of Mr Trump’s tweets dating back to 2012 found more than 110 instances of the president claiming widespread illegal voting, asserting an election or primary was rigged, or that voting by mail would allow for rampant fraud. More than half of those tweets were from this year, with the most of them concerning mail balloting.”
Upon his campaign against the expanded use of mail-in ballots, Trump has constructed a new threat: his sabotaging of the Post Office, a part of the government that is more necessary than ever to this year’s election because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here is how factcheck.org put it:
In an Aug. 13 interview, Trump admitted that he opposes a coronavirus pandemic relief bill crafted by the House Democrats because it includes funding the US Postal Service and state election officials – funding that Trump said is needed to allow the Postal Service to handle an expected surge in mail-in voting.
Look again at what is happening:
1. Using the public platform of the presidency, Donald Trump is trying to persuade US Americans that their elections cannot be trusted, while standing for election as a candidate himself.
2. Using the formal powers of the presidency, he is trying to make this reckless claim come true by preventing the Post Office from performing reliably as the country turns to mail-in voting.
3. And he is doing this during an election in which a reliable mail service is an imperative because of a public health crisis that his presidency has failed to contain.
Put one, two and three together – examine the way they loop into one another – and it’s more than a civic emergency; it’s a national crisis. News coverage has to reflect that. The news media can’t just cover these events in bigger type. They have to take commensurate action.
Here are some suggestions for action.
1. Create a threat modelling team
Almost all the resources the media use to cover the party conventions should be redirected to a threat modelling team. This team will be responsible for locating the most likely breakdowns in the election system, and for advising the assignment desk on what deserves attention in the daily reports. Everyone in the newsroom will know what the top priorities are in covering the campaign: the biggest threats. There will be no excuse for getting distracted by Trump’s tweets.
2. Create a live Threat Urgency Index
One of the products of that new team could be something like a “live” Threat Urgency Index, re-published daily, and in a newsletter people can subscribe to. It would summarise and rank the biggest dangers to a free and fair election by merging assessments of how consequential, how likely, and how immediate each threat is. One purpose of that index is to provide a counterweight to the confusing onslaught of America-in-crisis headlines, each of which feels like a “big story”. (Usually because it is.) This has been called “flood the zone with shit” by Trump confidant Steve Bannon.
It shrinks the importance of any one warning signal by jamming the system with too much signal. When outrageous conduct produces no outrage because people have given up on trying to process it all, the zone flooders have “won.” The Threat Urgency Index can try to combat this method by adding hierarchy, continuity, composure, clarity. Voters and news consumers will be able to hold the media accountable for their coverage of what they publicly declare to be the biggest threats to a free and fair election.
3. Pressure government officials into reacting to what Trump is doing
As Trump becomes a more active danger to US democracy, the rest of the political system has to decide what to do about it. This is one of the levers that journalists have. They are in a position to pressure office-holders and other government officials to go on the record with reactions to what Trump is doing. Pressing for answers can itself have effects, as we saw last August in Montana.
In a normal campaign year, the media assign people to “embed” with the candidates and follow them around as they hit the campaign trail. This time there is no campaign trail because of Covid-19. So the media should be shifting those resources to a different project: getting key office holders in both parties on the record through relentless questioning designed to hold them accountable for supporting, opposing, or interrogating what Trump is doing to undermine the vote.
4. Don’t track the race, track solutions and leadership
In a normal election cycle, the media put considerable effort into tracking “the race”. They do this in the belief that people want to know who’s winning and how they’re doing it. But the public can be just as well informed with a simple daily summary of polling averages in key states and nationally. (Sites like 538.com and Real Clear Politics specialise in this kind of information.)
With a deadly pandemic that has not been brought under control, a collapsing economy that is leaving families adrift, and a threat to its democratic institutions coming from the top, the United States is badly in need of people with political courage and practical vision who can inspire others. And so the resources the media would normally devote to state-of-the-race journalism should be redirected: to reporting about people who are providing exceptional leadership, or devising solutions, like the team from Yale and the NBA who came up with a coronavirus test that the FDA called “groundbreaking” in its efficiency.
Most hard-boiled journalists hold “positive news” in smirking contempt. But anyone who has listened carefully to readers, viewers and listeners knows that news fatigue and a sense of hopelessness are now serious obstacles to the maintenance of an informed public.
If the United States is to emerge from this crisis with its democracy intact, we are going to need an alert and engaged citizenry. It is unrealistic to expect people to pay attention to an unending stream of crisis news, especially in a nation deliberately polarised by a president sowing chaos, selling hate. There has to be another key in which the country’s song can be played. Instead of who’s ahead in the horse race, the media should be reporting on who’s ahead in the human race to get us out of this mess.
The consequences for our journalism
Democrats, Republicans and voters who call themselves independent are all equally entitled to news coverage that properly gauges the urgency of the threat to US democracy represented by the president’s conduct of the presidency and methods for winning re-election.
The principle at work here is not reflexive opposition to Donald Trump, or some standing hostility to the Republican Party, but loyalty to democratic institutions, including the surpassing importance of free and fair elections.
Early in Trump’s term, Marty Baron, the editor of The Washington Post, spoke these memorable words about the President’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric: “We’re not at war, we’re at work,” said Baron. This was a smart warning not to get caught up in bringing down a president.
When the powers of the federal government are turned against the reliability of the vote itself, we have crossed an invisible boundary that separates a bitterly fought election from an enterprise-threatening event.
In August, Stephen Collinson of CNN wrote: “The most dangerous threat to the integrity of November’s election is coming from the man sworn to protect it, the President of the United States.”
That is an escalation. Trump is an active threat. This has consequences for our journalism. How can it not?