Memo to the Media: How Not to Cover the President
What J-School never taught you.
Dear esteemed colleagues, former colleagues and other members of the responsible media I’ve never met:
I am not being sarcastic. Honest. I respect your work and I know that you — we — are the only thing that has ever stood between a robust democracy and the hydra-headed evils of corruption, greed, incompetence and ignorance. Not to mention the hypocrisy of lies and self-aggrandizement from an unrelenting narcissist with no ability to temper his own apparent madness.
I know that many of you are working god-awful hours to chronicle the absurdity and malevolence of this administration. I believe that you care deeply about your responsibility to the American public to convey the truth.
But I beg you to consider a new approach to our critical profession. I urge you, in the face of what may be the scariest threat yet to our civility as a nation and our freedom as individuals, to consider a new tactic in covering the current presidency.
Specifically, stop reporting everything they say or do.
Stop repeating — gratuitously — the lies (or the fantasies). Stop reupping the ante. Stop restoking the flames of idiocy.
Stop seeking an Oval Office reaction to every misstep.
Case in point: the president’s insistence that his predecessor wiretapped his phones.
The claim was absurd from first tweet, but of course we needed evidence, so those initial reports were probably necessary. But when the Senate Intelligence Committee and the (Republican) Speaker of the House said Thursday that no such evidence existed, the story was over. Done. Finished. Or should have been.
Then came Thursday afternoon’s performance by the president’s mouthpiece. “He stands by it,” Sean Spicer said about his boss and the flatly discredited claim. And the headlines resurfaced, once again producing a he-says/they-rebut, we’re-in-charge-of-the-dialogue victory. It’s difficult to speak louder than the guy with the biggest microphone. But guess what? He can’t count on that microphone if you — we — don’t ask the question or honor the response.
Sure, it’s important to remind the American people that the president and his staff have little contact with reality. But don’t give them the free ride of repeating the lie.
I know, I know — the monster of competition is on your backs. Bosses often have more on their minds than principles; editors don’t exist. You have no time to process your interviews before they’re running on the air, live; no one to challenge your assumptions from the vantage point of more experience, more wisdom. You have no time to think.
And yes, I know, he’s the president, and they’re all the president’s men. Don’t they have to be covered?
Not if they’re saying nothing new.
Not if they’re spewing garbage.
Not if the incoherence is so apparent even they can make jokes about it.
Even when major politicians say important and new things, they don’t always get air time. Once, during the historic 1984 vice-presidential campaign of Democrat Geraldine Ferraro — the first woman to run on a major party ticket — I wanted to do a piece on her surprising face-off with Reagan-friendly autoworkers in the Midwest. My ABC News desk turned me down, full up with stories before noon that day.
I reported, they decided; that’s the way it works. I get it.
But the 24/7 pressure of today’s endless news cycle has produced a new dynamic, and the catnip of TV ratings as everyone scrambles for new eyeballs has too often led to the easy way out. The quick story, the one that requires no contemplation. Just throw up the latest sound bite and wait for the next one.
Back in the 1970s, as a correspondent for WCBS-TV News in New York, I had a smart colleague who used to flesh out every news conference he covered with actual facts — where the speaker was right, and where wrong. “We’re not human microphone stands,” he’d say, belligerently and accurately, frustrating an earlier generation of New York politicians.
Another sensible reporter from those early days, fed up with the insistence on granting equal time to often irrelevant opposing arguments, used to call what we were asked to do “the delicatessen style of reporting — a quarter-pound of this, a quarter-pound of that,” even when the two kinds of baloney weren’t of equal value. It made for a good kosher sandwich, but sometimes, not very significant journalism.
Look, I’m not talking about replacing fairness with bias here; nor about trading ice cream for broccoli. And plenty of reporters are, finally, labelling the lies. But pulling back on the repetition — the facile regurgitation of everything from “populist president” to “brilliant businessman” to, well, making America “great” again — and refusing to headline their version of the facts, might, in fact, free up time to report on things that matter.
By all means, keep up the pressure with stories on Russian influence and financial gain until we get some answers. Just Say No to the addictive nonsense.
Warn the mighty that if they continue to spew word salads instead of sentences, fanciful illusions rather than provable facts, you won’t put them on the air or in print. What was good enough for Humpty Dumpty — “When I use a word,” he told Alice as she wandered through the looking-glass, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less” — won’t fly with the American people anymore. Our version of that inversion was the president’s reliance on an infinity of fun house mirrors: Tweeting out the inanity of the wiretap after he saw it mentioned on a wholly unreliable TV show.
If a TV lie is repeated on Twitter and nobody responds, does it fall on any ears at all?
So I’m hoping someone will be bold enough to take up the challenge. To stop treating empty opinions like breaking news; to cut off access to publicity the way you’d stop reading a book full of gibberish.
And while I’m on the subject, one more thing.
Could one of you — one reporter, anywhere — please say to any Trump surrogate, or to the president himself, when he or they utter one of those unintelligible, fact-free collections of syllables — could you just say, please, “What are you talking about?”
Thanks. We need you more than ever.