Some sympathy is warranted for how difficult it’s been for so-called traditional media outlets to report on Donald Trump. He violates norms as easily as he breathes, and if there were a record for number of lies told in a single sentence, Trump would shatter it regularly. During the former president’s time in office, it was difficult to accurately convey the enormity of his deviation from precedent without sounding like a partisan operative engaged in hyperbole. Even simply reporting what Trump says can feel fraught, given how often his remarks are preposterous lies, half-truths, debunked conspiracy theories and delusions of grandeur.
Too many news outlets have had a seeming obsession to cover Trump as though he’s just like every other political candidate or officeholder. That has never been the case. It’s a habit that’s got to be broken as the marathon that is 2024 presidential race coverage hits its stride. Thankfully, there are signs that this time around mainstream political reporters and editors are more willing to call things as they see them when it comes to what a second Trump term would mean for the country, even if it means a departure from the ways they’ve previously attempted to show objectivity.
There is something that has seemingly made the task of honestly covering Trump less daunting this time around: Trump, his campaign and his operatives have been more than willing to plainly state his plans for a second term. His intent to turn the Justice Department into his own personal weapon is well-documented; his campaign messaging is specifically framed around his calls for revenge against his political enemies. There are hundreds of pages detailing these plans and ample reporting on their origins.
As a result, even the more “small-c conservative” outlets and reporters that would otherwise fetishize a particular version of objectivity have spoken plainly about Trump’s “naked challenge to democratic values,” as The New York Times put it Monday. That article said that “Republicans in Congress would be even more pliable in any second Trump term,” accurately naming them as abettors to his autocratic aims without, in a misguided aim to provide balance, accusing Democrats of similar behavior.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Karl, chief Washington correspondent for ABC News and an archetype for the traditional “straight news political reporter,” didn’t mince words in a recent interview with The Bulwark’s Bill Kristol about what’s to come. Here’s how The Bulwark’s Jonathan Last summed up Karl's remarks:
He’s interviewed Trump and loads of Republicans. He told Kristol that 95 percent of the sourcing for his book came from Republicans, many of whom worked for Trump. And the picture they painted for Karl was dystopian.
· Acting appointments from top to bottom.
· A cadre of thousands of political appointees, vetted for personal loyalty to Trump, replacing career civil servants.
· An understanding among Trump lieutenants that they are free to break the law because they will be pardoned.
· An overriding desire on the part of Trump to seek retribution against perceived enemies.
It’s encouraging to hear these venerable institutions and the journalists they employ speak plainly about what we can already see happening before our very eyes. But the glacial pace of this shift has been frustrating because Trump has never been keen on keeping his autocratic plans secret. He wasn’t shy about his intent to stay in office no matter what, lying about the “rigged” nature of the vote long before Election Day 2020 and long after it was clear he’d lost. He’s prone to blurting out whatever the thrust of his machinations is at any given moment and letting it get lost in the firehose of words that are constantly flowing out of his mouth.
His absence of a filter leads to another major issue in covering Trump: his penchant for blatantly but unconvincingly lying like a child whenever he’s confronted with his past statements. In that scenario, his response, if not an outright fabrication, is typically a version of the truth that would make sense only if audio and video recordings didn’t exist. Networks have begun to insist on taped interviews with Trump because live interviews hinder journalists’ ability to fact-check him.
Journalists have also been in a bind as to how to edit video of Trump speaking or how to accurately convey his remarks, because editing his speeches and remarks in a way that makes sense to the listener or reader may not be objective but may be doing him a favor. As Australian journalist Lenore Taylor wrote in 2019 on a visit to the U.S., transforming his rambling speaking style, which has grown only more pronounced since he left office, into something resembling a coherent narrative only makes him sound less off-the-wall than he truly is.
Of course, there are still blind spots that media organizations need to address. People writing headlines and chyrons about Trump, which are all some people see as they scan the news or flip through channels, still struggle to convey much-needed context. We also still see that coverage can be slow to find the real news in his verbal onslaught. Such struggles can lead to buried leads, like the infamously anodyne headline on a Times piece about the speech Trump gave in which he called his political opponents “vermin.” The Times’ original headline read, “Trump Takes Veterans Day Speech in a Very Different Direction.”
Most importantly, what the media needs to do is keep this same energy we’re seeing and apply it to everything written between now and Election Day. His autocratic tendencies and dystopian vision of America’s future are not context for the story; they are the story, much more so than the horse race at any given moment. Accordingly, Trump’s threat to democracy is a reality that needs to be reflected in all stories about the election, not just the ones that specifically seek to call out his plans.