POLITICS & THE PRESS: The Challenges of Covering the Trump Administration
August 16, 2018
My timing couldn’t have been better. I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard, with my husband and son, the day Islanders Write began. It’s a free event, with an impressive list of panelists discussing the art and business of writing. Which is why, mere hours after stepping off the ferry, I took a seat in the sweltering, un-air conditioned Grange Hall in West Tisbury, packed the way my synagogue is for high holidays, and churches are at Christmas. Instead of a sermon, we’d come to hear four renown journalists discuss their challenges covering the Trump administration.
As a former journalist, I’ve been following coverage since the election of President Trump, which caught me and, I daresay, the media, by surprise. Since that fateful day, covering the president has been, “a cross between a five-alarm fire and a three-ring circus,” said Bob Drogin, a Pulitzer prize-winning Washington deputy bureau chief and national security editor for the Los Angeles Times. “Usually, there are two news cycles a day. Now, there are four or five.”
I chuckled at his vivid analogy, but the smile was wiped off my face when he told us how the opiate crisis killed 65,000 people in America last year, “more than the total killed in Viet Nam,” but this story has been buried under the daily Trump firestorms.
“Because of Trump’s tweets and misinformation, we spend a lot of time truth spotting and have pulled away from other stories,” Drogin added.
Richard North Patterson, New York Timesbestselling author, as well as political columnist for the Boston Globe and Huffington Post, agreed, saying that, “Russia, the environment, trade, and fiscal disaster are not being written about enough.”
On the other hand, Drogin said Trump has been good for television news ratings. This made no sense to me, a former CNN junkie who now barely watches the news because all I see and hear is Trump. I don’t know how anyone can stand him for hours on end, and wonder if Wolf Blitzer is getting desperate to focus on someone other than the president.
“Whether you love him or hate him,” Drogin continued, “people are transfixed by him. He’s successful at exploding issues...and Trump has been good for circulation and morale.”
Melinda Henneberger, Kansas City Star columnist who also spent 10 years with the New York Times as a correspondent, disagreed, saying this may be, “true for Washington papers but not for most newspapers.
“In Kansas, we don’t write a lot about Trump.” She also pointed out that many newspapers are not experiencing increased circulation, stating, “small daily papers go out of business every day.”
True. My daily go-to, the Toronto Star, has shrunk to a skeletal staff, with the majority of articles taken from the New York Times and Washington Post feeds. Trump’s not selling papers.
Henneberger went on to say she has, “never felt more physically threatened, and at rallies, I sit with the public, not the press. Los Angeles reporters covering rallies are caged for protection.”
Did she really say caged? Perhaps this shouldn’t be so shocking. Since moving into the White House, President Trump has proclaimed, “The news doesn’t tell the truth. They have no sources. They make it all up. It’s fake…they are the enemy of the people.” When you get a crowd of ill-informed people, who believe this nonsense, together in one place, it’s not hard to imagine riots breaking out, with journalists as scapegoats.
Yet, in spite of Trump’s extremist and false words, and in spite of the fact that many Trump supporters have lost jobs due to his policies, a horrifying 91 percent firmly support Trump, said Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who has worked with PBS, NPR, and The News Hour.
How can this be? Hunter-Gault said Fox News has been working on these people for decades. People are thrilled to stand behind a president even if they’re hit personally because Trump is standing up for them and standing against immigrants taking their jobs.
Patterson went a step further, explaining that tribalism is a root cause of the inexplicable loyalty to Trump, with two distinct Americas emerging: “different educations, different loyalties, and readers versus non-readers. I couldn’t help but agree. How else can we make sense of the people spouting Trump’s baloney like gospel?
Patterson’s goal is to reach people in the middle who are persuadable, and said he has to assume, in the long run that enough of what we report will lead to a consensus that he (Trump) has to go. I hope he’s right but I wouldn’t bet on it.
For me, the biggest concern arising from President Trump’s misinformed rhetoric is the threat to our democracy, a danger Drogin describes as, “corrosive.”
“Trump, like any autocrat, is trying to divide the country. It’s a throwback to the McCarthy period where he has the Russians under his bed. He has Putin under his bed.”
Whenever I hear Trump linked to McCarthy, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I’m frightened about what lies ahead, mostly because it’s clear Trump doesn’t care about the damage he’s causing as he forges ahead, with blinders on.
As the discussion ended and panelists answered questions, I was struck by the crowded hall, on a humid August evening. Granted, this was a free event, but it was also the middle of summer and beaches could be found on all sides of this island off the coast of Massachusetts. I recalled Drogin’s remark about politics replacing religion, ethnicity, and other ideological views Americans used to identify with.
This seemed frighteningly true, given Trump’s disturbing persona, not unlike the zealous and unethical television preachers (Jim Bakker, Billy James Hargis, and Robert Tilton) who’ve managed to con naïve people out of their life savings. Some of them stole millions over decades before they were caught, leaving families broken and unable to build themselves up again. These criminals’ damage was limited to the boundaries of their congregations. Trump’s reach is far greater.