Covering the Trump "train wrecks" -- are they really still newsworthy?
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Three friends and I were involved in a text exchange about setting a lunch date to discuss politics when one, a Democratic, posed this question:
“What if the press quit covering Trump’s impromptu press conferences?”
My knee-jerk text reaction was this: “The nation might be better off.”
Which prompted this response from another friend on the string: “It would be that much easier for those fooling themselves into thinking Trump is a rational actor to keep that self-delusion going.”
That friend followed with a link to a Politico story on Trump’s apparent preference for what Stephen Colbert calls “Chopper Talk” versions of news conferences. The brief — or not so brief — exchanges during which a tousled Trump and an urgently disordered troop of reporters shout at each other through the din of a military helicopter are the main points of news-media access to Trump.
And they are access, of a sort. In a strictly numerical sense, they probably give Trump the lead in "accessibility" compared to previous presidents.
But Chopper Talk -- or, more accurately, Chopper Shout -- is not really the best way to conduct this part of the people's essential business, compared to a traditional news conference. There the president calls on reporters without knowing their question, reporters can actually frame and present a nuanced question and often get to ask a follow-up question, or two.
Everybody can hear everybody. No shouting necessary.
As the Politico story points out, Trump calls the shots in the Chopper Talk pressers, responding to questions he likes, ignoring those he doesn’t and only acknowledging follow-up questions if he feels like it.
Reporters are at a disadvantage. Trump has the edge, which is how he wants it, of course. And he often uses the media moments not so much to discuss policy, although he does some of that, as to attack opponents, belittle predecessors and spread twitter-length bursts of speculation that typically ranges from the assinine to the preposterous.
So I do have to ask myself, as I’ve asked myself before, should the national news folks really give him that platform? Or would they be better off to ignore anything the president says that isn’t actual policy driven, events-specific news?
Would the nation be better off? Would the world?
I’m thinking perhaps they would be, we would be, which is a strange thing to think for a person who has worked a professional lifetime in news.
A couple of days after the text exchange with my friends, I posed the to-cover-or-not-to-cover question to a Republican friend. He's a strong Republican, conservative on military and budegtary issues and more moderate on social ones. He likes a lot of what Trump has done in policy but hates the way he behaves and tweets and talks.
His response to my question: “If you’re a reporter, how do you watch a train wreck happen in front of you and not cover it?”
Fair question. Although real train wrecks are real news. I’m not sure that Donald Trump’s regular train wrecks of thought and comments and tweets and actions are real news. Not really. Not anymore.
At what point does Trump’s nasty, repetitious invective against one political opponent or another no longer merit reporting? At what point does his latest jeering attack on his predecessors in the White House become simply meaningless blather, and get treated as such?
When should the national news folks stop repeating, and thus magnifying, his falsehoods, his bizarre conspiracy theories, his unfounded assertions, ignorant rants and tedious tirades?
You could argue that they are trying to set the record straight in the face of Trump's relentless fact twisting. But Trump's most feverish posse will not accept any truth but Trump's anyway. And for the rest, how much of the exaggerations and downright lies would the general American public even know about if they weren't reported every day?
Have we not reached the point where we should expect a more discerning, more selective approach to White House news by those who cover the president every day?
It’s even been suggested by some people I know that whenever these already chaotic press briefings further devolve into a mix of The Apprentice and Duck Dynasty the professional news crews should just shut off the cameras, put away their notebooks and walk away.
I like the idea, and its somewhat theatrical message. But it’s probably not practical. He’s still the president. And sometimes he says things that matter, even as he plays the role of a deranged locomotive engineer speeding toward the next presidential train wreck.
Reporters have a responsibility to cover that stuff. The real stuff.
But the rest of it? Are the D.C. reporters just fulfilling their responsibilities in covering Trump train wrecks? Or are they encouraging and actually becoming part of them?
If they aren’t spending some time wondering about that, they should be.