(This is a dry run for a new project I’m pursuing that involves a daily critique of American political journalism. Please let me know what you think — and who else’s critiques you would value. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The coverage of the two fundamentally dishonest events the White House staged back-to-back on Thursday afternoon provides a case study in how top political reporters in America’s most elite newsrooms are still failing to appropriately cover Donald Trump.
Both events made it incumbent upon journalists to explain what was really going on, and put it in its essential and abnormal context, rather than just hand over the megaphone, take notes, and get punked, as they did to such disastrous effect during the 2016 election.
The good news is: They’re doing better. The bad news is: There’s still a lot of room for improvement.
And the hopeful news is: Perhaps some best practices can emerge if we examine their work closely.
Let’s review what happened Thursday.
For one, Trump invited an extraordinary collection of far-right hysterics and disinformation-spreaders to what was billed as a “social media summit” — ostensibly to highlight anti-conservative bias – thereby validating and encouraging their extremism, while at the same time delivering an unhinged monologue in which among other things he both attacked and misconstrued the First Amendment.
Then, he tried to spin his backing down on the politically-motivated addition of a citizenship question to the U.S. Census as a victory, with a sycophantic attorney general at his side, congratulating him on his greatness.
No even vaguely sentient political reporter in America fell for any of this. But how much did they call it out?
The Associated Press coverage was marvelously forthright and assertive, giving no credence to the White House spin, from its headline — Trump applauds far-right social media provocateurs – on down. Reporters Kevin Freking and Marcy Gordon wrote in their top:
President Donald Trump used a White House conference Thursday to applaud far-right social media provocateurs even as he conceded that some of them are extreme in their views.
Trump, who has weaponized social media to eviscerate opponents and promote himself, led a “social media summit” of like-minded critics of Big Tech, excluding representatives from the very platforms he exploits.
And they provided some important context about one element of the event:
The meeting represented an escalation of Trump’s battle with companies like Facebook, Google and even his preferred communications outlet, Twitter, where he has an estimated 61 million followers. The president has claimed, without evidence, that the companies are “against me” and even suggested U.S. regulators should sue them on grounds of anti-conservative bias.
But even so, the AP reporters shied away from detailing the extreme nature of the participants or the disturbing nature of Trump’s comments.
The Washington Post story was a disaster. Written by tech policy reporter Tony Romm, it was an almost complete fail, starting with the headline: “Trump accuses social media companies of ‘terrible bias’ at White House summit decried by critics”, which successfully aired Trump’s completely scurrilous grievance while weakly acknowledging that critics exist.
The first paragraph similarly quoted Trump at a summit “that critics chastised for giving a prominent stage to some of the Internet’s most controversial, incendiary voices.”
Why was Romm hiding behind the “critics” construction here? There is nothing even vaguely disputable about calling these people controversial and incendiary.
But it got worse. Romm also wrote that the event “led some critics to express dismay that the president aimed to use the policy summit as a reelection push.”
And then he quoted yet more critics — “Democratic lawmakers and watchdog groups,” this time — expressing alarm “that Trump had invited supporters who have a history of targeting the president’s political opponents with inflammatory tweets, misleading videos and hard-to-debunk conspiracy theories.”
And, lastly, “critics fretted that Trump had essentially endorsed such controversial tactics in the early days of the 2020 presidential race.”
Not one single conclusion Romm attributed to “critics” needed any attribution. Those are facts. What Romm was doing is sometimes called “editorializing by proxy” — and here it is nothing short of cowardice.
(I first found the phrase “editorializing by proxy” in a 2018 report from the research institute Data & Society by Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips, and it’s brilliant. For instance: “While editorializing by proxy might feel more comfortable from a reporting perspective… not taking a clear position risks lending plausibility to objectively false and/or manipulative claims. Furthermore, couching fact as opinion does not lend greater objectivity to the reporting. It actually undermines that objectivity.”)
Romm also adds the obligatory quote from the Southern Poverty Law Center — that the president is “essentially conducting a hate summit at the White House” — although, honestly, with all the recent revelations about the SPLC’s own race problems, I think it’s obligatory to go someplace else instead these days.
Over at the New York Times, the headline on White House reporter Katie Rogers’s article was inappopriately anodyne: White House Hosts Conservative Internet Activists at a ‘Social Media Summit’.
The opening paragraphs telegraphed a sort of understated skepticism:
As he opened an event that had brought 200 conservative social media firebrands to the White House, President Trump wanted his guests to know just how much he appreciated their work helping shape the online narrative about his presidency and a re-election fight.
“The crap you think of,” Mr. Trump said as he surveyed his Twitter kingdom, “is unbelievable.”
But then, in an unusual interjection of a reporter’s unattributed analysis, Rogers stated unequivocally, of all things, that Trump’s motive was to go “in search of outside-the-box campaign ideas from a group that also has little use for playing by the rules.”
That’s complete nonsense — and hardly the kind of critical perspective needed here.
It got even weirder when Rogers then mocked White House spokesman John Deere for stating that “the president wants to engage directly with these digital leaders in a discussion on the power of social media.”
“That’s really not what happened,” Rogers wrote, smacking him down.
But Deere’s statement was, in fact, awfully close to what Rogers herself had written a few paragraphs earlier! And rather than explain how the event wasn’t what the White House said it would be, Rogers then veered off into a description of a mini-meleee in the Rose Garden later that day.
Rogers also filed an alternate version of her story written almost entirely in her contemporaneous tweets, like this one:
I found that version more conversational, forthright, and enlightening.
What should the news stories have said? Although it was labeled an “analysis” rather than a straight news story, I liked Stephen Collinson’s article on CNN.com headlined “Donald Trump stokes fear and conspiracy on path to 2020.” It started off:
Collinson noted that, among other Thursday happenings:
At a “social media summit” of invited conservatives, Trump tried to redefine free speech as information favorable to him and warned Democrats were attempting a communist takeover.
In one chilling aside, Trump — who maintains a constant stream of falsehoods in speeches and on social media — tried to redefine the parameters of free speech, injecting a motivating campaign message directly into the bloodstream of conservative media.
“I don’t think the mainstream media is free speech because it is so crooked, so dishonest,” the President said in the East Room of the White House.
“To me, free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposefully write bad,” Trump said.
A census of the census event
Journalists covering Trump’s Rose Garden event on the census were under obligation not only to report that Trump had backed down, but that he was lying when he said he wasn’t — and that he and his administration had lied about the citizenship question all along.
They got the first part down pretty well.
Seung Min Kim, Tara Bahrampour and John Wagner wrote in the Washington Post:
President Trump on Thursday backed down from his controversial push to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, effectively conceding defeat in a battle he had revived just last week and promised to continue despite a recent string of legal defeats.
And (in a paragraph they could have attributed to “knowledgeable observers” rather than “opponents”) they explained:
The announcement marked the end of a 19-month push by the administration to ask about citizenship status on the decennial survey, which opponents decried as an effort to systematically undercount Latinos and scare immigrant communities from participating in a survey that helps determine congressional districts and the disbursement of some federal funds.
But the story lacked much of the honesty and directness of the writers whose work mostly appears on the Post’s website, and labeled as “analysis.”
So, for instance, where the “news” story quoted Attorney General William Barr on face value, Aaron Blake wrote that “for sheer spin value, Thursday’s performance was tough to match,” then marched readers through why. Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent wrote that Barr “tried to sugarcoat it with an unctuous dose of sycophancy, repeatedly congratulating the president for his ‘effective action,’ while announcing that the question will not be added.”
And JM Rieger compiled a video documenting how “The Trump administration changed its story on the census citizenship question 12 times in four months.”
In the New York Times, Katie Rogers, Adam Liptak, Michael Crowley and Michael Wines were admirably blunt about Trump’s loss in their top two paragraphs:
President Trump on Thursday abandoned his quest to place a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, and instructed the government to compile citizenship data from existing federal records instead, ending a bitterly fought legal battle that turned the nonpartisan census into an object of political warfare.
Mr. Trump announced in the Rose Garden that he was giving up on modifying the census two weeks after the Supreme Court rebuked his administration over its effort to do so. Just last week, Mr. Trump had insisted that his administration “must” pursue that goal.
So why quote Trump’s lame protestation — “We are not backing down on our effort to determine the citizenship status of the United States population” – in the third paragraph, without pushback?
Lower down, the Times reporters provided some indication of what the battle was all about – albeit by proxy:
Stanton Jones, a lawyer with the firm of Arnold & Porter who helped represent opponents of the question in a federal lawsuit in Manhattan, accused the Trump administration of waging a multimillion-dollar court battle that from its inception was a plot to advance Republican political interests.
“The citizenship question was always a cynical ploy to rig American elections for partisan and racially discriminatory reasons,” he said.
Government experts predicted that asking the question would result in many immigrants refusing to participate in the census, leading to an undercount of about 6.5 million people. That could reduce Democratic representation when congressional districts are allocated in 2021 and affect how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending are distributed.
And although Barr’s performance was arguably his most disingenuous yet – which is saying something – the Times reporters gave no such indication:
Following Mr. Trump to the Rose Garden podium on Thursday, his attorney general, William P. Barr, said that any administration move to modify the census would have survived legal review, but only after a lengthy process that would have jeopardized the administration’s ability to conduct the census in a timely manner.
“Put simply, the impediment was a logistical impediment, not a legal one,” Mr. Barr said. “We simply cannot complete the litigation in time to carry out the census.”
Who did it right? Jill Colvin, Mark Sherman and Zeke Miller, writing for the Associated Press. No mincing of words. No hyperbole. Just telling it like it is. Their second and third paragraphs:
He insisted he was “not backing down,” declaring in a Rose Garden announcement that the goal was simple and reasonable: “a clear breakdown of the number of citizens and non-citizens that make up the United States population.”
But the decision was clearly a reversal, after the Supreme Court blocked his effort by disputing his administration’s rationale for demanding that census respondents declare whether or not they were citizens. Trump had said last week that he was “very seriously” considering an executive order to try to force the question.
And then, not tacked on at the end, but in paragraphs five and six:
Trump’s efforts to add the question on the decennial census had drawn fury and backlash from critics who complained that it was political, meant to discourage participation, not only by people living in the country illegally but also by citizens who fear that participating would expose noncitizen family members to repercussions.
Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, and the lawyer who argued the Supreme Court case, celebrated Thursday’s announcement by the president, saying: “Trump’s attempt to weaponize the census ends not with a bang but a whimper.”
And the AP writers made room for some important reminders of the contradictions and deception that had led to this point, such as:
Trump insisted his administration was pushing forward anyway, publicly contradicting government lawyers and his commerce secretary, who had previously conceded the case was closed, as well as the Census Bureau, which had started the process of printing the 2020 questionnaire without the controversial query after the Supreme Court decision.
As he has many times before, Trump exploded the situation with a tweet, calling reports that the fight was over “FAKE!”
Trump had offered multiple explanations for why he believed the question was necessary to include in the once-a-decade population count that determines the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives for the next 10 years and the distribution of some $675 billion in federal spending.
Is the Associated Press — which has a history of being overly timid in its political reporting — now a model of best practices when it comes to covering the White House? Let’s just say that my impression is that they don’t get enough credit in Washington for what they do — including their consistent fact-checking — and how widely they are read.
But stay tuned. I’ll be keeping an eye out.