Euphemism isn’t journalism, but conflating the two can be irresistible for mainline journalists when candor might seem overly intrepid. Two months before Inauguration Day, a straw in the US media wind pointed toward evasive fog around the incoming president when PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff convened a roundtable segment (11/21/16) with program regulars Tamara Keith of NPR and Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report.
From the outset, the journalists emphasized that the new president won’t be “traditional.” Walter said: “We have to stop treating Donald Trump like this is just a traditional, normal political candidate who’s now going to be a traditional, normal president.”
Moments later Keith, a White House correspondent for NPR, was explaining that Trump “has not related to the press or the public in a traditional way ever. And he’s had an incredible skill at distracting, at creating—there was this movie Up and there was a dog who gets distracted, and, squirrel, squirrel. That’s what happens.”
As happens so often, top-of-the-line political journalists marveled at Trump’s ability to create distractions while they kept themselves—and their audience—distracted from substantive matters. As Keith immediately demonstrated:
Every time there is a story that is not favorable to him, like settling the Trump University lawsuit for $25 million, suddenly there is a Twitter fight.
Meanwhile, he has skillfully avoided sort of the type of environment that a press conference creates, the environment where you get asked a question, and then somebody else asks a question, then somebody else asks a question, it builds on it, and you really can’t escape. There’s nothing like a press conference.
And his transition team is saying, well, you know, don’t tell him what’s traditional and what’s conventional. This is Donald Trump.
The way Keith veered away after a mention of an actual issue—like the Trump University fraud settlement—to focus on Trump’s stagecraft is, unfortunately, how Beltway journalism typically treats a “traditional, normal president.” When Woodruff commented that Trump is “keeping us on the edge of our seats,” Walter responded: “And he loves doing that. Remember, this is a candidate who said, I like being unpredictable.” From there, Walter was soon back to how untraditional Trump is:
So, this isn’t surprising to me at all that he’s continuing this as president. I think this is what we learned during the course of the campaign is that just, every day, we would come in and we would say, well, maybe now is the time that he’s going to pivot. Maybe now he’s going to look more like a traditional candidate.
That just is not going to happen. And so as he’s parading these people through, you can argue that he’s bringing a lot of different faces and voices, but the people that he’s picked are the people we should be focusing on.
But somehow the seven-and-a-half minute segment never got around to focusing. When the discussion went through the motions of covering the ground of Trump’s major appointees and nominees at that point—Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions and Mike Pompeo got brief mentions—there wasn’t the slightest indication that in total they had backgrounds inclusive of racism, anti-immigrant fervor, extreme hostility to Muslims, antisemitism, and support for torture.
Instead, there was this protracted excursion to pretty much nowhere:
JUDY WOODRUFF: What are we to make of these choices so far?
TAMARA KEITH: Yes, personnel is policy, especially in his case, because he doesn’t have really well-defined policy positions that he campaigned on.
He doesn’t have strong positions on a lot of things and he doesn’t have the government experience. And so what we have so far are people who are very much of the Trump party. They are not traditional Republicans. Now, he’s met with people like Mitt Romney or General Mattis, people who would be considered more traditional, but he hasn’t picked them yet. And so, at this point, it’s really not clear—aside from who he has picked, like a Steve Bannon or a Mike Pompeo.
WOODRUFF: Jeff Sessions.
KEITH: Jeff Sessions.
WOODRUFF: Jeff Sessions for attorney general.
KEITH: Exactly. Other than those names, we know who he’s talking to, but we don’t know who he’s actually listening to or choosing.
WOODRUFF: But it’s giving us—these names, though, Amy, have given us something to look at.
AMY WALTER: The names that he’s picked.
WOODRUFF: The names he’s picked. Jeff Sessions has a record.
WOODRUFF: Steve Bannon has a private sector record. Certainly—
WALTER: And it aligns with the Donald Trump that we saw on the campaign trail. Their views and vision align with what he talked about on the campaign trail. And all of them were active for him on the campaign trail and as surrogates….
Well, in all fairness—the journalists’ roundtable did inform viewers that “Jeff Sessions has a record” and “Steve Bannon has a private sector record.”
Winding down, the segment seemed to remain trapped in an irony-free zone:
WOODRUFF: Amy, do we just get used to this?
WOODRUFF: Hanging on the edge of our seats?
WALTER: Yes, is that you have to just get used to all of this.