Donald Trump leaves US media all in a twitter

Mr Trump tweeting from his office in New York. As the future president eschews press conferences, many wonder how seriously his tweets should be taken, and whether this strategy will continue after his inauguration.
Mr Trump tweeting from his office in New York. As the future president eschews press conferences, many wonder how seriously his tweets should be taken, and whether this strategy will continue after his inauguration.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Key issue is whether to view his tweets as distractions or report on them

The American media is struggling to adjust to President-elect Donald Trump's unconventional communication strategy - tweeting at unexpected times and, often, on unexpected topics.

Since the Nov 8 election, Mr Trump has proposed a U-turn in America's Cuba policy, revealed negotiations with a major manufacturer, made apparently false claims of millions of illegal votes, and hinted that he might upend current free speech laws.

On Nov 29, an article in the New York Times - a particular target of Mr Trump's vitriol during and after his campaign - wrote: "As news organisations grapple with covering a commander-in-chief unlike any other, Mr Trump's Twitter account - a bully pulpit, propaganda weapon and attention magnet all rolled into one - has quickly emerged as a fresh journalistic challenge and a source of lively debate."

The key question is whether Mr Trump's tweets should be viewed as distractions, or warrant reporting and deep analysis - even when they contain manifest falsehoods.

This is important because the brash 70-year-old real estate tycoon has not held an open press conference for around four months - though he has given some interviews - but, has used Twitter very effectively to directly reach his 16.4 million followers as well as dictate the direction of mainstream media coverage, sometimes with a single tweet.

In some ways this use of Twitter is pioneering, Dr Laurie L. Rice, an associate professor of political science at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, told The Straits Times.

"In 2012 you started getting candidates with enough followers that it could have made a difference - but they did not find a way to excite people like Mr Donald Trump has managed to do in 2016. One of the reasons is that his tweets seem to be very unfiltered, unmanaged - just like his Twitter handle @realDonaldTrump; people feel that's what they're getting," she said.

Dr Rice noted that Mr Trump "is good at getting a pulse on what will attract people, what will interest them, what will get them to pay attention", and he seems to have learnt that from hosting The Apprentice reality show on television from 2004 till last year.

Ms Claire Wardle, research director at the Columbia Journalism School's Tow Centre for Digital Journalism, said: "We've gone from dismissing Twitter to taking it seriously. We have created an apparatus in which we take tweets as public statements.

"Mr Trump is a showman. He understands media more than any president previously, because he has been in it, he has been part of the media. He is using social media in the absence of press conferences."

This seriously challenges mainstream media like the New York Times and the Washington Post, said Prof Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University.

Given that Mr Trump's often provocative Twitter tactics have changed little since he won the election, journalists and pundits alike are wondering whether he will change after the inauguration on Jan 20 - when he takes over the official Twitter handle of the President, @POTUS.

"I think there are some norms, some unwritten rules on how Washington works and he doesn't feel obliged to stick with those," Dr Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of  Wisconsin- Madison, told The Straits Times.

Mr Trump may decide to have very few or no press conferences and prefer this form of "communication or propaganda", said Prof Gitlin. But the role of the mainstream media will remain critical.

He added: "It won't do simply to say here's what Mr Trump (tweeted); it has to be met with evidence, it has to be called false when it's false."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2016, with the headline 'Trump leaves US media all in a twitter'. Print Edition | Subscribe