Finding the language to cover Trump

US media struggles with a unique problem: How to report hyperbole

Profundity is a rare visitor to the newsroom. It is hard to digest the true import of events in the daily dash to deliver news on deadline. Writing for The Atlantic during last year's US presidential campaign, a female journalist came close, unpacking the Trump phenomenon in a single sentence.

"The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally," wrote Ms Salena Zito.

That moment of clarity was fleeting. The theme and tone of the press coverage of President Donald Trump's first month in office have been both dismissive and dismal. Rather than undertake a sober chronicling of a young administration, unexpectedly catapulted to power by forces that the American media completely failed to read, newspapers, magazines and TV channels have mostly portrayed a flawed President with a dangerous agenda. Someone who can't be trusted with the nuances of foreign policy or the gravity of national security.

The Atlantic magazine's March cover features an essay by conservative commentator David Frum - "How to build an autocracy" - in which he forecasts a systematic breakdown of the American democracy in a matter of four years under Mr Trump.

The New Yorker, another iconic publication, reached that conclusion even earlier, when it announced at the time of Mr Trump's inauguration that it was on guard against a President whose adherence to the Constitution was episodic at best, with a bylined piece by editor David Remnick titled "Preserve, Protect and Defend".

The Wall Street Journal recently published a story claiming that the intelligence community was withholding sensitive intelligence from their commander-in-chief because they feared it could be leaked or compromised. That report raises chilling and constitutional issues with no easy answers. The administration denied it.

Mr Trump and First Lady Melania Trump acknowledging supporters during a "Make America Great Again" rally in Melbourne, Florida, on Saturday. The American media does not seem to know how to cover the 45th President's signature style of declarative exa
Mr Trump and First Lady Melania Trump acknowledging supporters during a "Make America Great Again" rally in Melbourne, Florida, on Saturday. The American media does not seem to know how to cover the 45th President's signature style of declarative exaggeration, Himalayan mis-statement and instantaneous policymaking, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

The New York Times has put out a number of anonymously sourced reports speaking of disarray and dysfunction in the White House. Fair game. But in an editorial commenting on Mr Trump's press conference last Thursday, the paper wrote with a vein of vehemence about Mr Trump's attacks on the press. It said: "Viewers may wonder why the President returned repeatedly to his media attacks. But the news workers who thrive on information more than insult already know the answer - they're a perfect distraction from real events hatched in Mr Trump's new administration, like the embarrassing retreat of his labour secretary nominee from Senate scrutiny, the dismissal of his national security adviser for secretly buttering up Russian adversaries and the courts' unceremonious spiking of Mr Trump's unconstitutional attempt to choke off Middle East immigration with a photo-op stroke of his pen." The headline summed it up neatly: "For a Troubled President, the Media is a Satisfying Target".

But merely summing up does not let the media off the hook. It is now over five months since Mr Trump made an art form out of his tight-rope walk on thin strands of facts and vaulted over pollsters and pundits to beat 16 contenders to claim the mantle of the Republican Party. And three months since he repeated that feat against Mrs Hillary Clinton.

The 2016 presidential election provided the clues to unravelling the deep disconnect between the media and the ordinary Joe. To the millions of Americans who voted Mr Trump into office, the mainstream media is part of the same establishment that he promised to defeat in his quest to make America great again.

Counting from June 2015 when Mr Trump declared his candidacy, that is only a few months short of two years that the press has had to decode the Trump Effect. More than enough time to find the language to explain the arguably biggest upset in electoral politics in America. Its failure to do so can be summed up in the answer to a single question.

How do you cover hyperbole?

The American media does not seem to know how to cover the 45th President's signature style of declarative exaggeration, Himalayan mis-statement and instantaneous policymaking. How do you report "untruth" or "lies", or grandiose self-aggrandisement objectively, fairly and meaningfully?

The mainstream media has so far read Mr Trump's speech strictly literally, as the Atlantic journalist had observed. After a particularly bruising encounter, the media tends to list the inaccuracies either dispassionately or disdainfully, losing the narrative to the millions of Trump voters who perceive these verbal excesses as merely "straight talk".

The President's excesses are legion but routine. Defending his travel ban that sparked chaos across the globe recently, he said: "I understand things. I comprehend very well, better than I think almost anybody." In another instance, he told the military that the "very, very dishonest press" had "their reasons" for under-reporting terrorism. The New York Times predictably reacted literally. It listed all its stories on terrorism.

To his supporters, the same, rigorously quoted words conveyed entirely different meanings. To them, by claiming that the press was under-reporting terrorism, Mr Trump was striking a blow against political correctness that prevented the Obama administration from ever using the words "Islamic terrorists" to describe groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It goes further: Mr Trump to them signifies pride in "American exceptionalism", which can be loosely defined as patriotism but goes farther to the conviction that the US has a special providence in human affairs. That it is like a beacon, a "shining city on the Hill" to the rest of the world. This idea can be traced back to America's founding.

The liberal idea of American exceptionalism embraces the immigrant melting pot aspect of the idea of America, which the conservatives believe "Europeanises" and dilutes it. The conservatives' main beef is that the new immigrants are no longer integrating into the mainstream culture and creating little islands of disparate ethnic culture and values. There has always been a strain of nationalist paranoia associated with conservatism. The liberal mainstream press believes it is defending American exceptionalism against this xenophobic exclusivity and upholding democratic values. With this approach in the Trump era, there is the danger that the media descends into an activist role.

The Trump hyperbole was treated by the media as a joke during his election campaign but it is not clear what useful national purpose is served through a disdainful treatment of a sitting President, the keeping of a running tally of Mr Trump's "transgressions", the gleeful fact-checking of his utterances that border on "gotcha" journalism.

Some calibration is now taking place in the American media landscape. The Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker declared to his staff last Monday that the financial daily will not be "oppositional" in its reporting of Mr Trump. Rather it would be "objective" and the paper would not use the word "lies" but choose to characterise Mr Trump's hyperbole as inaccuracies or misrepresentations, except in the most extreme cases. Reuters editor-in-chief Steve Adler similarly reminded his reporters to stay neutral, not pick fights or vent against the Trump administration and not take "too dark a view of the reporting environment". The Washington Post has arguably been the most loyal to the watchdog function, with its focus on special investigative stories, producing stories backed by data and deep reporting.

A valid question for the New York Times and others to address would be why media is such a "satisfying" target, why does punching the press serve to delight Mr Trump's supporters. Why indeed has the media come to seem like a villain in popular imagination. When and why did that trust, which makes information from the media acceptable and indeed valued by citizens, disappear?

The 2016 presidential election provided the clues to unravelling the deep disconnect between the media and the ordinary Joe. To the millions of Americans who voted Mr Trump into office, the mainstream media is part of the same establishment that he promised to defeat in his quest to make America great again. There is a term for them in the Republican talk shows listened to by millions in the heartland that the media of the big cities does not reach: "drive-by media". They are derided as hacks who drop in for a day for the obligatory quote from an unemployed mill worker captured in a stark shot, in dying sunlight bouncing off an abandoned factory.

This loss of trust undermines the media's role as an honest interpreter of Mr Trump's actions. When he refers to the "failing NYT" he hits the bull's eye with his audience. In this scenario, it counts for little if the NYT puts up an annotated version of Mr Trump's speech, puncturing every hyperbole with cold facts. Mr Trump and the media can talk past each other until the next election. An analysis even pointed out how the Trump-media duel is good business.

A cold fact - for the media - is that Mr Trump won the election fair and square. Instead of pausing to decipher the result, the unexpected turn of history, it has seized on him as a public menace. It has thus far failed to strain with equal vigour to understand what was missing in contemporary American politics, what was so lacking in Mrs Clinton's seemingly watertight candidature that Americans voted for Mr Trump.

It is not enough then for the media to declare that he is unequal to the task, if that is indeed the case. Or even demonstrate his unsuitability. It needs to investigate the workings of government, the details of policy and dig deeper than it has ever dug before. It also needs to lay out the enormous cost of failure.

All in language that all Americans can understand.

•The writer is former US Bureau chief for The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2017, with the headline 'Finding the language to cover Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe