For the second time in two weekends, President-elect Donald Trump stirred controversy, bigly, using only his thumbs.
With a trio of tweets Sunday alleging millions of fraudulent votes and “serious” fraud in three states, Trump effectively hijacked the news cycle for the next 24 hours with baseless conspiracy theories. A week prior, it was Trump’s tweets demanding an apology from the cast of “Hamilton” for disrespecting Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in the audience the previous night.
It can all feel pretty small and sideshow-y at times. Some have a prescription: The media should resist the urge to cover Trump’s tweets as big news. Others even say we should ignore them altogether.
But both of those are fantasies. And we’d be doing readers a disservice if we tried either.
Undergirding the idea that Trump’s tweets shouldn’t be big news is the theory that he’s manipulating the media into focusing on small things to cover up less sexy but more important things - conflicts of interests and possible corruption, in particular.
I’m skeptical any such plan exists, given that Trump’s thin-skinned tweeting is pretty indiscriminate. But this idea has returned with a vengeance given the latest tweetstorm, and it’s likely to perk up again after Trump on Tuesday morning suggested revoking the citizenship or jailing of people who burn the American flag.
Here’s how Politico’s Jack Shafer, whose piece last weekend titled “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool” has become a rallying point for the ignore-Trump’s-tweets crowd, reacted to the voter fraud tweets:
“Here’s the breaking news investigation that Trump is trying to distract you from reading/discussing/retweeting: https://t.co/ULqq3VFTuj”
The voter fraud flap has led to some Shafer converts and even more support for toning down coverage of or ignoring Trump’s tweets. Here’s a sampling:
“Okay, media twitter, Trump’s tweets are nothing new. Lets turn the discussion to policy and legislation. Ready, go!”
“Attempting to start a movement here: Ignore Trump’s Tweets! It just encourages him. He has the powers of POTUS. Why does his Twitter matter?”
“Focus on Trump’s business. Follow the money. Ignore the tweets. Focus on Trump’s business. Follow the money. Ignore the tweets.”
“I’m almost beginning to believe theory that Trump’s tweets are subterfuge to distract us from real scandals. It’s time to ignore his tweets.”
Shafer responded to the last one:
“I’m winning the Twitter intelligentsia one person at a time.”
What we’re basically talking about here is treating Trump like a social media troll with an egg for an avatar who can be blocked or ignored and hopefully loses the will to keep harassing us.
But this is the president-elect of the United States. The job comes with the so-called bully pulpit, and what he says matters and will be the subject of debate no matter what the mainstream media does. Everything he says reverberates. It doesn’t matter if he says it on Twitter or at a news conference; either way it’s going to be consumed by tens of millions of people, and the media has an important role to play when it comes to fact-checking and providing context.
ProPublica senior reporting fellow Jessica Huseman nailed it in an interview with The Washington Posts Callum Borchers on Monday.
“If he had said something similar in a press conference, no one would be concerned that journalists are getting distracted by his absurd language,” Huseman said. “But because it was a tweet, that’s somehow different? Unfortunately, this president-elect has decided to make Twitter his main means of communicating with the American public, and the American public listens deeply to things that he says on Twitter.”
Let’s play it out a little further. The alternative here is that Trump makes a claim to his 16 million Twitter followers about large-scale voter fraud, and the press either says nothing about it or reports it while perhaps adding that there’s no proof of such claims.
If we did that, we’d probably be (rightly) accused of giving Trump a pass on a controversial thing he said. And you don’t have to look far for this type of media criticism; during the GOP primary, the media was often accusing of failing to call Trump out for saying untrue things and/or for giving him an unprecedented platform to get his message out by airing his rallies live and without any additional context.
It’s ultimately a no-win situation for journalists. If we don’t cover the statements enough, we’re abrogating our responsibility to be a check on the powerful and to promote the truth; if we cover them in-depth and point out just how baseless Trump’s conspiracy theory is, we’re focusing too much on a distraction and giving Trump what he wants. And the coverage has been highly, highly skeptical, with notable exceptions.
There seems to be a sense - particularly on the left but also among some in the media - that because Trump won the 2016 election, the media failed at its job as a watchdog. That’s not fair — or true. The media in large part presented Trump just as he was, with very skeptical coverage of the many controversial things he said. This led the majority of people to think Trump lacked the right temperament to be president, that he said racist things and that he was biased against women and minorities.
Trump won in spite of all of that — not because the media covered up his vulnerabilities, but because people decided they weren’t deal-breakers.
And as we move forward in the Trump administration, the soon-to-be president will apparently keep spouting off on Twitter just like he did in the campaign. Every last bit of it will likely be covered as any presidential statement would be.
And if past is prologue, it will do nothing to endear Trump to the American people.