It is difficult to deny that President Donald Trump is the country’s most sensational president, and regardless of how it may seem, that is by no means the president’s doing alone.
Prior to the Trump administration era, a randomly selected group of Americans would probably identify a handful of scandals as the most important in recent U.S. history. President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal and the Clinton-Lewinsky trial would certainly stand out most, possibly followed by former President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina.
A mere two years into his presidency, Trump has already offered up scandals of his own that arguably exceed in severity each of the aforementioned scandals prior — respectively, his probable ties to Russian oligarchy, his various reported cases of adultery and rape and his continued lack of interest in Hurricane Maria relief efforts for Puerto Rico.
Yet despite their combined gravity, these instances of Trump’s poor leadership are difficult to keep straight amid the dozens of other micro-scandals the president has been involved in. Just this week, for example, Trump has primarily received attention in the media both for pocketing money allocated to his inaugural committee and for tweeting racist insults at Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D). While these two events present topics worth distinct articles of their own, for our purposes we will focus on these events in general terms. On one hand, the media coverage of the investigation of Trump’s inaugural committee is newsworthy, as it presents a novel perspective on the ongoing federal efforts to make the president’s corrupt behaviors more transparent. More simply, coverage of the inaugural committee investigation is important because it involves something that Trump has done and not what he has said.
You probably already see where I’m going with this. It is contrastingly counterproductive and inefficient for the media to spend any time remarking on the outrageous things that Trump says, especially when doing so only reinforces what we already know about him.
To refer back to his tweet about Warren, media coverage shows us that Trump is a bigot, but we all already knew that anyway. The neutral language that is required of journalists when addressing a topic like this is especially useless because it does not allow for criticism of Trump’s anachronistic statements.
Because presidential scandals of this magnitude used to be few and far between, our news media was not prepared to deal with the drama factory that is the Trump administration, and as a result, he is only becoming more notorious by the hour with no end in sight.
In other words, our most prominent media outlets — take the The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and especially Fox News, just to name a few — are each guilty of possessing outdated criteria for what constitutes a newsworthy event.
Unfortunately, this discussion is all too familiar. Attribution of Trump’s political success has been placed with our country’s primary media networks for some time, even in the months prior to Trump’s electoral success. Because of these networks’ seeming inability to redefine which Trump stories are newsworthy and which are not, little has changed since then.
Granted, CNN and MSNBC have elected to change how they cover White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s lie-riddled press briefings. The former has forgone live coverage of the briefings in favor of including much-needed fact-checking chyrons, while the latter even chose not to air the briefing entirely in favor of actual Trump-related news. Though CNN’s approach is a marked improvement, more networks should be following MSNBC’s model.
Coverage of the 2019 State of the Union address, on the other hand, represented a two-steps-back moment for U.S. media. Trump’s recent address was covered by just about every major news media outlet but was also suffused with misinformation in usual Trump fashion. If these media outlets truly prioritized the pursuit of truth over the publication of sensational news, they should have, at the very least, waited to air the address until all fact-checking accompaniments were completed.
Sure, the yearly State of the Union address has traditionally been treated as a newsworthy moment in our annual media cycle, but this is precisely why our definitions of newsworthy must be updated. Making matters worse, recent polls indicate that Trump’s national approval rating has risen to 50 percent since the address. At least some of the responsibility for that rests on the shoulders of the media outlets that chose to air the speech without any form of fact-checking accompaniment.
Moreover, it is increasingly urgent that media outlets deem Trump’s rhetoric too toxic and his speeches too densely-packed with falsehoods to be fact-checked in a live setting. The media should take their microphones and go home when our president is on his soapbox because it is what the presidents does, not what he says, that truly matters.