It’s time to start ignoring what Trump says – as much as possible

The White House press office’s decision to strip CNN reporter Jim Acosta of his credentials – on the basis of doctored video, no less – demands a response from our major news organizations.

Boycotting the laughable White House press briefings, staging a walkout, and suing are all fine ideas. But they’re not going to solve the fundamental problem, which is the broken relationship between the Trump White House and the press.

Trump has played news organizations for fools from Day One, using them as his personal megaphone, delighting in their attention, getting them to spread his hate and lies even while decrying them as the enemies of the state.

The necessary response to that is a total rethinking of how to cover a president who makes stuff up all the time, contradicts himself, considers himself infallible, spouts gibberish, lacks empathy, and is a racist, a misogynist and abusive to boot.

But speaking as a journalist myself, it’s hard to break old habits, even when they’re being used against us. When Trump says something new, especially if it’s outrageous, it’s news. (Check this out!) We certainly can’t bring ourselves to look away. We remain shockable. And we remain oddly optimistic that maybe this question or that story will get a different kind of response, or will shame him, or will change him.

So what to do? We need to put everything Trump says in its truly radical context as part of an ongoing assault on truth, pluralism, and constitutional government. And we also need to start focusing on the future, on lessons learned, and on what sort of reform we need to pursue once he’s gone. In fact, those are the two main reasons I launched this website.

But even that’s not enough.

What we really need to do is start ignoring what he says as much as possible.

To the extent that we simply can’t do that, we need to make the story primarily about how he is lying, or projecting, or contradicting himself, or speaking nonsense.

And most importantly, instead of letting him set the agenda, we need to set the agenda, by focusing on critical issues, real facts, and unanswered questions.

Luckily, there is finally another center of gravity in Washington that we can legitimately shift our attention to — especially if House Democrats start demanding answers to important questions about how the Trump administration does business.

My thinking on this is profoundly influenced not by a journalist, but by Justin Frank, an eminent Washington psychoanalyst whose new book, “Trump on the Couch,” attempts to take us inside Trump’s mind.

It’s not a journey for the faint of heart.

It’s an extraordinary book, and I’ll write about its major points in a separate post or two in the near future. In short, Frank draws a portrait of Trump’s parenting, his pathologies and his disabilities, and reaches some conclusions that I, as a journalist, found hugely enlightening.

One, which you can take more or less literally as you see fit, is that Trump is in many ways a big baby, stuck in a primitive way of seeing things and expressing himself, with enormous, primal needs and a wildly inflated self-image.

So after reading the book, I called Frank and asked him what advice he would give the journalists who cover the White House.

The first thing to do, he said, is to realize that no matter how hard they try, they’re not going to throw Trump off his game

“You can’t get to him,” Frank said. “It’s not that he won’t change, he can’t change.”

“Once you give up on trying to get through to him – you accept that he is impervious — then you have to take care of business yourself,” Frank said.

The only effective way to win is to stop playing.

So when Trump lies, the press corps should report that he lied – then move on quickly. “Now let’s talk about the problems we have to face. Forget about him. He is who he is,” Frank said.

“He is brilliant at projecting,” Frank said. So reporters could say to themselves: “I’m not going to report on him. I’m just going to report on how everything Trump says about somebody else is about himself.”

For instance: “When he says the Democrats are criminals,” the reporter would explain that he said it “the same week the New York Times had a gigantic article about what a criminal he is.”

Frank said it would work a lot better if news organizations spoke with one voice and said, “We are not doing this anymore. You show us your taxes, otherwise you’re out of the news.”

That’s too much to ask. The press corps probably won’t even agree on an immediate response to the yanking of Acosta credential. But every major news organization, independently, should take advantage of this moment of clarity — and the rise to power of an opposition force in the House — to reassess how they cover Trump, and whether they are doing their readers and viewers a disservice if they continue business as usual.

Coming soon: Frank’s diagnosis of Trump – and his explanation for why Trump connects so well with his base.

Jonathan Swan, whose ‘exclusive’ blew up in his face, is the poster child for getting played by Trump’s White House

Jonathan Swan, looking very pleased. (Screenshot)

Jonathan Swan, who covers the White House for Axios, is getting lots of well-deserved grief for his giddy and enabling exchange with Donald Trump over birthright citizenship, which led to an enormous and embarrassing media circus on Tuesday as news organizations chased Swan’s story, hyped it, then (in most cases) realized it was just that much more Trump bullshit aimed at riling up his base before the midterms.

Swan is the poster child for Axios, the noxious political website created by Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei as proof that worming ones way into getting access to highly-placed sources is way more profitable than, say, actual journalism.

Swan is an Axios scoop machine. But consider what he’s scooping.

The folks who hand him “exclusives” are not brave whistleblowers doing a public service by exposing lies.

They’re people who know Swan will play his role in their game of attention-getting score-settling.

Swan knows exactly what the game is, and how little it has to do with actual journalistic values. I know he knows, because he wrote an article about it for Axios back in May. Why do you leak? He asked his White House sources.

“To be honest, it probably falls into a couple of categories,” one current White House official tells me. “The first is personal vendettas. And two is to make sure there’s an accurate record of what’s really going on in the White House.”[…]

The most common substantive leaks are the result of someone losing an internal policy debate,” a current senior administration official told me. “By leaking the decision, the loser gets one last chance to kill it with blowback from the public, Congress or even the President.”[…]

A former senior White House official who turned leaking into an art form made a slightly more nuanced defense of the practice. “Leaking is information warfare; it’s strategic and tactical — strategic to drive narrative, tactical to settle scores,” the source said.[…]

Another former administration official said grudges have a lot to do with it. “Any time I leaked, it was out of frustration with incompetent or tone-deaf leadership,” the former official said.

This actually leaves out what may be the most common form of Trump White House leak: The trial balloon. Trial balloons are planted leaks (or “pleaks“) to test public reaction to a policy proposal – with the added benefit that they reduce the shock element and make it feel like old news once the proposal is formally announced. It was a tried and true White House tactic long before Trump. But it’s never been used to float such abhorrent proposals.

I browsed through some of Swan’s biggest scoops, and found stories like like Exclusive: Trump vents in Oval Office, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” and Exclusive: A leaked Trump bill to blow up the WTO or Scoop: Leaked document reveals Navarro’s brashest tariffs yet, all of which seemed like pleaks, intended to test and soften the resistance to what was to come.

I found Scoop: Trump’s obsession with the “terrible” FBI building, in which Swan writes admiringly about Trump’s desire to micromanage the rebuilding of the downtown FBI headquarters – while missing the obvious story, which is that Trump blocked a plan to move the FBI elsewhere, which would have made room for a luxury hotel that would have competed with his own.

I also found a lot of gossipy clickbait like Scoop: Kelly says Trump probably contributing to staff chaos stories or Exclusive: Trump’s nightmare: “The snakes are everywhere”.

Swan also had a huge scoop in September, when he reported that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had resigned. “Rod Rosenstein has verbally resigned,” he initially reported, later changing that to “offered to resign.”

As for Swan’s big, credulous no-pushback birthright citizenship scoop, sharp-eyed reporters saw the problem right away. The Daily Beast’s Sam Stein was surely among the first:

There was much more to com.

At Splinter, Libby Watson wrote:

At best, Swan has his priorities extremely out of whack, positioning the value of his exciting scoop over the horrifying implications of this policy; at worst, he doesn’t care about what this change would mean at all, and had to be reminded to pretend that he might. (The Axios piece does not contain the word “racist” or “racism.”)

Matthew Ingram wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review that the whole incident

amplified the concern that some media outlets still don’t appear to have learned one of the central lessons of the Trump presidency: He will routinely say things that aren’t even close to being true, and if you credulously repeat them—even in tweets—without saying they are false, you are arguably part of the problem.

The Intercept’s Sam Biddle declared that “the new video clip debuted today by Axios may be the ne plus ultra of media toadying.”

But hey, some good may well come of all this.

Swan’s question was so clearly staged for PR purposes, Trump’s supposed plan was so implausible, his insistence that the U.S. is alone in its birthright policy was such an incontrovertible lie, and the whole thing was such an obvious attempt to get attention before the midterms, that this may prove to be a turning point in Trump coverage.

You could actually watch such a turn at the New York Times in real time on Tuesday. First came the breathless, credulous news story (in pink), which was eventually rendered accurate (see the edits in green). It was then joined by a properly contemptuous legal analysis by Adam Liptak (“The words of the 14th Amendment are plain”), which then made way for a Peter Baker front-pager worth celebrating, about how Trump “seems to be throwing almost anything he can think of against the wall to see what might stick, no matter how untethered from political or legal reality.”

Does that mean the Times won’t get fooled again, next time Trump plays the media for chumps? And that other major newsrooms have finally learned their lesson? I wouldn’t bet on it, but a guy can hope.

Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage

Don Lemon
CNN anchor Don Lemon is one of a very few journalists willing to show his disgust at Trump’s most outrageous conduct. (CNN)
It’s nice that the Washington Post and the New York Times the other day both ran articles pointing out that Donald Trump’s main strategy in the midterm elections is to traffic in fear and falsehoods.

It’s nice that PBS Newshour had the Toronto Star’s must-follow Trump-tracker Daniel Dale on the other night, patiently explaining to Judy “we call them false statements” Woodruff that “in our regular lives, I think the word we would use is lie. So, I think we as journalists should use it in our articles as well.”

All that fact-checking out there sure is fine, especially when it comes online while the lie is still young.

And the overall tone of Trump coverage from our top newsrooms has clearly become more skeptical over time.

But it’s all still a wildly understated reaction to a presidency that is an affront to so many core American – and journalistic – values.

Let’s be real: The vast majority of political journalists have been stifling their outrage ever since Donald Trump became a plausible candidate for president.

But by stifling that outrage, they have done a grave disservice to their audiences and to country.

By responding normally, they have unwittingly sent the message that what is going on is within the realm of the normal, when it is not.

They have let Trump widen the boundaries of socially acceptable discourse to include poisonous strains of overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny.

They have failed to defend against the erosion of democratic institutions.

Trump played the mainstream media for fools. He knew political journalists would be paralyzed into stenography by their phobia of appearing politically biased. He knew — he still knows — that every time he makes a preposterous statement, they’ll give him a megaphone, rather than a dunce cap.

Washington Post editor Marty Barron famously asserted that his organization isn’t covering Trump any differently than it would any other president. “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work,” he said.

But what is the work of a journalist? It starts with doing our best to deliver accurate information to the public — and then extends to advocacy for such core journalistic values as fair play, free speech, government transparency, a humane society, and holding the powerful accountable.

There’s a reason that not one of the top 50 American newspapers’ editorial boards endorsed Trump for president – even those that traditionally sided with Republicans. They recognized that Trump’s values are antithetical to journalism’s.

There’s a reason media outlets are having such a hard – and sometimes embarrassing – time finding Trump supporters to write op-eds or take part in panels. They don’t process facts or use language the way journalists do.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Vox’s Ezra Klein recently had a spirited conversation about journalism in the Trump era, exploring Klein’s hypothesis that political journalists haven’t just failed to make politics better, but are actually making it worse.

Rosen despaired that members of the political media never stop to take stock of things, and never seriously consider changing their ways.

There have certainly been several appropriate occasions to do so recently, including the failure to challenge the specious arguments for war in Iraq, and missing the financial implosion of 2008 until it was too late. Giving rise to Trump and then failing to explain him properly may be the worst yet.

“The erosion of democratic institutions — not just the press but all of them” is a key element of Trump’s political movement, Rosen said. “I don’t think our journalists have learned how to angle their work so they can defend democratic institutions, and they probably need to at this point because it’s getting so bad.”

The standard defense from our newsroom leaders is that the voting public is divided on what I am calling core American values.

But if Trump were denying gravity — it is just a theory after all — and a big chunk of Americans backed him up, we’d recognize two things quite clearly:

  1. We have not done our job very well, if people believe something so idiotic; and
  2. We have a responsibility to point out – consistently, aggressively, without any caveats — that he is wrong, and that things fall down.

Sometimes it feels to me like the most important requirement to work in a major newsroom these days is to be unflappable. Well, sometimes flapping is the appropriate response.

So how would justifiable outrage manifest itself? Every time Trump is being deceptive, the main thrust of the story should be the truth, not the lie. The story should vividly illustrate how wrong he is. It should point out how no president before has ever lied this much.

Journalists should not shy away from expressing their own informed conclusions about what is true and what is not. Many stories should include quotes from experts in their field — who are treated as trusted sources who know what they’re talking about, not marginalized as “critics.”

When Trump lies in a tweet about wanting to protect people with pre-existing conditions, that’s a great time to write about how the opposite is true. When he lies about wanting a middle class tax cut, that’s a great time to write about how he lied about last year’s massive tax cut for the rich.

Trump is hardly unique when it comes to violating core American and journalistic values. George W. Bush committed the ultimate presidential sin: lying us into war and then trying to cover it up. Barack Obama, despite his vaunted speech to Muslims calling for a new relationship, dropped 26,172 bombs in seven predominately Muslim countries in his last year in office alone. Despite his public commitment to transparency, he made up rules for drone and cyber warfare unilaterally and in secret.

But Trump’s affronts are across the board, and constant.

Back in July, I wrote at great length about how the rebirth of the deflated Los Angeles Times Washington bureau could become an occasion for the sort of journalistic revolution I’m looking for. California newspapers are the natural vanguard. As I wrote (initially on Medium):

A supermajority of Californians see Trump for what he is. California is future-focused — in distinct contrast to Trump’s fantastical visions of a mythological past that he wants to return to. California is leading the state-level resistance to Trump initiatives in areas such as environmental deregulation, health care, immigration and voting rights. Its people are multicultural and pluralistic. They take seriously their role as stewards of the earth.

So from California, the view is clear: Trump is a profoundly regressive force whose actions and statements are dangerous. And he’s being enabled. Congress has abdicated its role as a check to presidential power. The Supreme Court is no longer committed to protecting minority rights. The result: an irrational and unrestrained president threatens the future of our country as a pluralistic constitutional democracy.

A bureau that openly embraces this view as a baseline… would cover Trump very differently from more typical DC reporters, who censor themselves for fear of appearing to take sides.

But that never went anywhere.

I tweeted my intention to write about this topic earlier today, and got some valuable responses. (One of which is already reflected above.)

I like this idea very much:

My ideas tend to stem from my idealism about journalism. Constantly exposing Trump’s con game is a very practical antidote to Trumpism, and potentially highly effective at bringing people who have been deceived by Trump back to reality.

This tweet is a powerful argument against everything I’ve written above, and I partly agree:

And this tweet reflects the existential despair I felt the other day, seeing a (hopefully outlier) poll reporting that 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing.

Do half of Americans consciously and intentionally reject what I still think of as core American values? For now, I’m going to continue to hope that it’s an aberration — a fluke of history — that journalists can help reverse.

President says crazy thing we’re not going to dignify by putting in a headline

It happened again today. The president of the United States said something flat-out nutty, and our major news organizations treated it like normal news, slapping it into the headlines and passing it along to their readers with little more than the standard, buried “critics said” response.

Trump was telling reporters outside Marine One this morning that he had talked to King Salman of Saudi Arabia about what is almost universally presumed to be the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul nearly two weeks ago.

Trump said Salman “firmly denied any knowledge of it.” Then, Trump said this: “It sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers. Who knows?” Here’s the full quote:

We are going to leave nothing uncovered.  With that being said, the King firmly denied any knowledge of it.  He didn’t really know.  Maybe — I don’t want to get into his mind — but it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?  We’re going to try getting to the bottom of it very soon. But his was a flat denial.

A reporter asked “who else could it be besides Saudi Arabia?” Trump replied:

I don’t know.  We’re going to try to getting to the bottom of it.  I can only tell you that his denial to me is — just one very, you know, relatively fast phone call.  Probably lasted 20 minutes.  His denial to me could not have been stronger that he had no knowledge.  And it sounded like he, and also the Crown Prince, had no knowledge.

The New York Times recognized the statement was a big deal, putting it in the headline of its story and the lede. But it wasn’t until the sixth paragraph that it offered any context – and even that was taking the comment seriously:

In introducing the possibility that another party could have been involved in Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, the president opened a window for King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to stand by their denials.

Like many other news organizations, the Times dodged any value judgment of its own, instead using this tweet from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) as the sole indication of its absurdity.

The Washington Post didn’t mention the rogue quote until the third paragraph of its story, but then waited eight more paragraphs to note that: “Trump floating a ‘rogue killers’ scenario prompted ridicule from Democrats in Congress.”

As many news organizations have reported, Turkish officials have identified the members of a 15-man Saudi team arriving and leaving the consulate in a black Mercedes van around the time of Khashoggi’s apparent murder. The team included a forensic expert who brought along a bone saw.

Suggesting, without any evidence, that this was a “rogue” operation is the desperate fabulation of a man who doesn’t want to acknowledge weakness by admitting anything bad about any of the authoritarian leaders he calls friends.

The Associated Press’s brief report on Trump’s comment came a bit closer to expressing the appropriate shock and skepticism, drily noting that “Trump’s language was strikingly similar to the language he has used to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election meddling.

And in fact the “rogue killers” hypothesis is strikingly similar to Trump’s lone hacker theory.

Talking during his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton who hacked the Democratic National Committee, Trump famously said: “I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?