By almost any standard, President Donald Trump’s rally on Tuesday evening in Milwaukee was a bizarre affair. The president went on a lengthy tirade about lightbulbs, toilets, and showers; touted war crimes; joked about a former president being in hell; and said he’d like to see one of his domestic political foes locked up.
I tried to capture some of the speech’s disconcerting oddness in my write-up of the event. In many ways, the remarks the president made were typical of him. And that provides the media with a challenge: Describing Trump as he really is can make it seem as if a report is “anti-Trump” and that the reporter is trying to make the president look foolish.
But for media outlets that view themselves as above taking sides, attempts to provide a sober, “balanced” look at presidential speeches often end up normalizing things that are decidedly not normal.
A brief report about Trump’s Milwaukee speech that aired Wednesday morning on NPR illustrates this phenomenon. The anchor’s intro framed Trump’s at times disjointed ramblings as a normal political speech that “ranged widely,” and the ensuing report (which originated from member station WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio) characterized his delivery as one in which he “snapped back at Democrats for bringing impeachment proceedings.”
“Trump was taking on Democrats on their own territory,” the reporter said, when in reality Trump heaped abuse on them, for instance, suggesting former Vice President Joe Biden is experiencing memory loss.
Listen for yourself:
This NPR clip illustrates how the media subtly normalizes Trump. His speech last night in Milwaukee in which he ranted about lightbulbs and toilets, touted war crimes, and joked about a former president being in hell is presented as a typical political speech. pic.twitter.com/NaJB9BhWfE— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) January 15, 2020
On Twitter, Georgetown University public affairs professor Don Moynihan noted that NPR’s report about the rally “mentioned specific topics like Iran and impeachment but carefully omit the insane stuff. This is one way the media strives to present Trump as a normal president.”
NPR is far from alone in struggling to cover Trump.
As I wrote following a previous Trump rally in Wisconsin last April, outlets including CBS, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Hill failed to so much as mention in their reporting that Trump pushed dozens of lies and incendiary smears during his speech.
The irony is that the media is one of Trump’s foremost targets of abuse. He calls the press the “enemy of the people,” yet the very outlets he demeans regularly bend over backward to cover him in the most favorable possible light.
The disconnect between the real Trump and the whitewashed version that emerges from mainstream reporting was captured nicely by Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor in a piece she wrote last September headlined, “As a foreign reporter visiting the US I was stunned by Trump’s press conference”:
I’ve read so many stories about his bluster and boasting and ill-founded attacks, I’ve listened to speeches and hours of analysis, and yet I was still taken back by just how disjointed and meandering the unedited president could sound.
I’d understood the dilemma of normalizing Trump’s ideas and policies – the racism, misogyny and demonization of the free press. But watching just one press conference [in real time] helped me understand how the process of reporting about this president can mask and normalize his full and alarming incoherence.
It is difficult to cover Trump, and it is important to honor the public’s trust in the press by providing fair and balanced coverage. But we also have to pay attention to how much more alarming the unfiltered Trump is when compared to the sanitized version that often emerges in mainstream media reporting.