On July 15, President Donald Trump stepped onto the South Lawn of the White House for the third “Made in America” showcase. In a transcript that stretches to more than 5,000 words, he discussed manufacturing policy, immigration, trade deals, China, Joe Biden, whether a boat could beat an anti-ballistic missile system, African American unemployment rates, drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, insourcing, strengthening the Buy American standards in federal procurement guidelines, and half a dozen other topics.
Did you hear about any of it? I suspect not.
I mention all this to establish a principle: There is quite a lot Trump says that the media — both the mainstream media and social media — ignores. There is no operative mandate that holds that every word that comes out of the president’s mouth makes the news.
But some of them do. Toward the end of that South Lawn speech, Trump was confronted with his tweets telling Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib to go back to their home countries. Asked about criticisms that his comments were racist, Trump replied, “It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me.” I bet you heard about that one. We in the media were all over that comment. I was all over that comment.
Donald Trump's political career, in one quote. https://t.co/WKVO1242El— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) July 15, 2019
The past few weeks, consequently, have hosted one of the grimmer news cycles in American politics. Trump has kept reiterating his racist comments. Asked to defend the president, Kellyanne Conway wheeled on a Jewish reporter and demanded, “What’s your ethnicity?” At a subsequent rally, Trump slandered Omar, then luxuriated as the crowd chanted “send her home.”
Trump, thrilled with the coverage he’s received, has kept beating the drum. He amped up his attacks on Omar, then turned to calling Rep. Elijah Cummings, an African American Democrat from Baltimore, a “racist” who represents a “rat and rodent infested mess.”
I agree with the liberal consensus that these controversies are, in some sense, bad for Trump, who is far less popular than the economy suggests he should be. But they’re also bad for the country. The people I fear are benefiting most from these spectacles are racists, who are seeing their views mainstreamed and watching the Republican Party contort itself closer to their positions in order to defend their president (my colleague Jane Coaston’s piece on the “Trump racism spin cycle” is worth considering here). A Pew poll found two-thirds of Americans say “it’s become more common for people to express racist views since Trump became president.”
.@RandPaul on @IlhanMN: "I’m willing to contribute to buy her a ticket to visit #Somalia... she can look and maybe learn a little bit about the disaster that is Somalia." “After she’s visited Somalia she might come back and appreciate America more.” https://t.co/g4Hmw0J1HH pic.twitter.com/RKjSASWbne— Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) July 27, 2019
We in the media have amplified every moment of this horror show. How can we not? What could be more newsworthy than this purified racism from the president of the United States and his supporters? It’s a moment to stand up and be counted. “What Americans will do now will define us forever,” wrote Adam Serwer in a powerful essay.
But what if the thing Americans should do next — or at least the thing the media should do next — is stop playing our part in this nightmare? What if the right answer here isn’t to meet Trump’s worst invective with round-the-clock coverage but to deny him the thing he wants most when he makes those comments: attention?
Does sunlight disinfect, or does it make things grow?
I don’t write this piece as a media critic. I write it as a journalist who believes our fundamental duty is to inform. I started Wonkblog at the Washington Post, and then co-founded Vox, with the intention of shining light on important stories that went ignored, or unexplained, amid the frenzy of the news cycle. As a writer, I have written tens of thousands of words about Trump’s worst comments. As an editor, I have assigned dozens of stories on them. I know the peculiar mix of moral urgency, journalistic values, and competitive pressure that generates our news cycles.
But it is hard for me to look at American politics in 2019 and say that what we are doing is working. Is the public more informed? Are the incentives we’ve constructed leading to a healthier national debate? If the answer is no — and I think it is — then we need to be open to rethinking the decisions that drive our coverage.
Let me start by being transparent about my own thinking. When I choose to cover racist comments like the ones Trump made, my implicit rationale for focusing on that story rather than anything else is something like this: It is newsworthy that the president of the United States is an unreconstructed racist. It is important that the public knows he is an unreconstructed racist. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
But as the media scholar Whitney Phillips has argued, the problem lurks inside the metaphor. Sunlight isn’t only, or even mainly, a disinfectant. What sunlight mostly does is help things grow. When Trump says of his racist arguments that “many people agree with me,” I agree with him. I believe, as many do, that there’s a lot of racism in America, and that one reason we don’t see more of it is it’s held in check by social opprobrium.
What I fear Trump is doing, with the media — including, at times, me — as his accomplice, is suffusing one of the hardiest weeds in American life with sunlight. These controversies are a constant signal to racists. They say, in short: You are not alone. You do not have to hide. You have powerful allies.
Phillips, whom I discussed this with on my podcast, argues that the “sunlight” metaphor has led the media astray. She prefers an ecological metaphor, where journalists are one of many groups trying to maintain the health of a public ecosystem. In this frame, some of what we cover is best understood as pollution — perhaps an inevitable byproduct of the ecosystem, but not something we want to disproportionately dump into the waterways.
What Trump is offering, so often, is pollution. His attacks are not a statement of policy. They are not honest or illuminating, save insofar as they reveal his own character. He’s designing a set-piece showdown between the septuagenarian white man in the White House and the young women of color who make up “the Squad.” It is a symbolic clash over power in America, designed to aggravate the racial polarization Trump believes to be key to his success.
Trump, who was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2013, is nothing if not a master of getting people to watch him fight. He chooses his enemies based on who he thinks will rile up his base. He uses outrageous, offensive insults to get the media to take notice. And then he feeds off the energy unleashed by the confrontation.
Let’s take another example. For years now, Trump has been calling Sen. Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas.” This particular insult has received an unusually large and continual amount of coverage. It’s bullying with a sheen of bigotry. Isn’t that newsworthy? It is. Yet what did covering it so often do aside from enhance its power?
For Trump, the gambit worked: He eventually baited Warren into releasing a DNA test, which damaged the rollout of her presidential campaign. Did the coverage work for anyone else? Of course not. Trump said something offensive, the media amplified it relentlessly, and the result was social damage, not stronger guardrails. The public knows far more about Warren since the media has started ignoring Trump’s insults and paying attention to her plans.
The Buddhist teacher Shinzen Young famously said that “pain times resistance equals suffering.” The idea is that pain is often amplified by the energy we spend resisting it. I’ve wondered, ever since my conversation with Phillips, if a similar equation doesn’t apply to Trump. I’d frame it as something like: Offensiveness times media amplification equals social damage.
This further crystallized for me while reading John Higgs’s strange, brilliant book on the British band the KLF. The band dissolves after watching the music industry it loathes profit from, and enjoy the experience of, their assaults, which included firing a machine gun loaded with blanks into an audience of record executives. Of the music industry, Higgs writes:
It can absorb any attack, no matter how heartfelt, because it simply doesn’t care about anything but the bottom line. As the Situationists put it, “opposition to the spectacle can produce only the spectacle of opposition.” Or to quote Raoul Vaneigem, “pissing on the altar is still a way of paying homage to the Church.” In this way the music of The Sex Pistols was eventually played to the Queen at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics, and the music of Kurt Cobain was eventually covered by the Muppets.
This seems to me to describe the media’s relationship with Trump: We are part of his show, because the amplification and opposition we offer him are part of his brand. Our sunlight doesn’t disinfect him; it’s the medium in which he grows. That might be fine if it was also serving our purposes of a more informed public and a healthier political ecology. But I see little evidence of that.
Perhaps Trump should have to normalize himself
The most important, least discussed idea in journalism is amplification. The one thing the media is doing all the time — whether we are creating a news dispatch, an investigative report, an op-ed, a cable news block, a narrative podcast, a documentary, or an essay like this one — is choosing to amplify some subject while ignoring others.
Yet we have almost no criteria — and certainly no transparent, rigorous criteria — for making those choices. The closest we come, at least on the news side, is the concept of “newsworthiness.” But newsworthiness is slippery. “Journalism academics have always known that newsworthiness, as the American press defines it, isn’t a system with any coherence to it,” says the press critic Jay Rosen. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just a list of factors that occasionally come together to produce news.”
Were Trump’s comments about the Squad newsworthy? I can answer that, I think: Of course they were. But let’s go a level down. Why were they so much more newsworthy than anything else? What made them more newsworthy than, say, the memo revealing that the Trump administration has basically abdicated the job of prosecuting white-collar criminals, or Senate Democrats’ continuing efforts to pass a bill that would address the asylum crisis in a humane way?
Part of the problem here is that the media isn’t a “we.” For all the claims of media bias or conspiracy, we’re actually a collection of outlets in competition with each other for the audience’s attention. When everyone else is covering something, it’s hard not to also cover that thing. Moreover, we’re a collection of outlets navigating a shaky business model: Trump coverage means traffic, and traffic is part of the business. In practice, those incentives do not enter our editorial conversations explicitly, but they are part of the context in which those decisions are made.
Trump, for one, understands this perfectly. “Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there,” he told the New York Times.
Still, there are easier — much easier — ways of making money than journalism. Most outlets are mission-driven first. if Trump’s comments didn’t fit our definitions of newsworthiness, they wouldn’t receive coverage. But they are newsworthy. It would be malpractice to suppress coverage of Trump’s racism. The question is whether it should receive continual headline coverage, whenever he chooses to engage in it. For instance, both Vox and the New York Times responded to Trump’s words by republishing long articles detailing dozens of racist actions and statements stretching back through Trump’s career. Those pieces were first published long ago. We knew Trump was racist before he said a word about Ilhan Omar. By suffusing the airwaves with his racism, were we further informing the public, or further polluting the ecosystem?
These are hard questions, and they defy easy answers. I asked Phillips for her advice over email. Her reply was tough:
The never ending news cycles about Trump’s racist tweets isn’t NOT warranted, what he did was horrifying. But think of the footage that’s on loop — it’s the racist stuff the white people are saying, and chanting, over and over and over. And I think that comes from a place of, “light disinfects.” We have to say what racist things he said, because they were so bad. But do we need to see and hear that crowd chant “send her back” that many times for the message to sink in? Again, whose stories are we most interested in telling, here? Why are our cameras only ever pointing at white faces, even when what they’re saying is an abomination?
Since Trump was elected, there’s been a constant refrain to avoid “normalizing” an abnormal president. It’s an argument I’ve made myself. But thinking back on it, I wonder if we got it backward in the execution.
The effort to avoid normalizing Trump has been operationalized by, in effect, lowering the bar to covering Trump. We’re on high alert for his abnormal statements — moments of racism, sexism, or bigotry; outright lies; flirtations with fascist ideas or autocratic leaders — so all he needs to do to refocus the political media and thus the country on the worst possible conversation is to make a comment that falls into one of these buckets.
But what if we reversed that approach? What if instead of lowering the bar to cover Trump, we raised it? Perhaps Trump’s behavior — the lies, the insults, the ignorance, the feuding that happens outside the realm of official administration policymaking — shouldn’t get coverage.
One way of thinking about this is the press offers the least coverage to the most predictable things politicians do. Barack Obama didn’t get much coverage for boilerplate comments about tax fairness or how Obamacare was working pretty well. There’s little attention paid to Mitch McConnell’s daily fulminations against regulations and socialism. Perhaps offense and bigotry should be understood as Trump’s baseline — newsworthy, just as the central projects of other leaders are newsworthy, but not worthy of blanket coverage upon every utterance.
Perhaps Trump should only get the coverage he seeks when he acts like the president rather than an internet troll. In this theory, a new health care proposal released by the White House might deserve coverage, but the latest round of insult comedy at a rally gets ignored. Perhaps, to receive the coverage he seeks, Trump should have to normalize himself.
Maybe that strategy would leave more room, too, to cover everyone else in politics, so people could more clearly see and debate possible solutions to actual problems the country faces. Perhaps, to Phillips’s point, the energy that goes to condemning Trump’s racism would be better spent covering the actual ideas of the nonwhite politicians he’s slandering.
I wouldn’t endorse this as a totalizing theory: Surely some forms of presidential offense deserve mention, and the distinction between Trump’s words and the administration’s ultimate actions are not a bright line.
Still, we ignore topics — and Trumpian set pieces — all the time. To circle back to where all this started, the Made in America showcase was meant to be a spectacle. It took place at the White House. The historic lawn was covered in boats and motorcycles, missiles and buck knives. It was suffused in patriotic branding. It failed because the media didn’t care. The event itself released no energy. If a spectacle takes place and no one watches, it’s not a spectacle at all.
Whether we like it or not, we in the media are the crucial amplifiers of American politics. Trump has learned that he can get us to amplify racist invective as often as he wants. We have set up a very particular incentive structure for not only him but everyone else in politics, where the coverage that can be generated by abnormal, offensive behavior far outweighs the coverage on offer for simply trying to do a good job and be a decent person.
If there’s truth to the equation “offensiveness times media amplification equals social damage,” well, we can’t control the offensiveness, but we can control the amplification. The question we have to ask ourselves now is whether we’re comfortable with the role we’re playing in American politics.
Writing this piece, I kept thinking of the remarkable, poised press conference the Squad gave amid Trump’s storm of invective. Rep. Ayanna Pressley was the first to speak, and she directed her remarks to the media that had assembled before her, a much larger audience than attended most of her press conferences. “I encourage the American people and all of us in this room and beyond to not take the bait,” Pressley said of Trump’s remarks about her. “This is a disruptive distraction from the issues.”