Here’s how reporters should cover Trump’s campaign
Nashville, Tenn., Oct. 22 – Supporters of former President Donald Trump ouside the final presidential debate of the electoral cycle at Belmont University. (Photo: John Partipilo)
On the evening of Jan. 6, 2021, CNN personalities tried to interpret for viewers across the world what had transpired that day in the nation’s capital.
“I would just like to remind our viewers that President Trump now for years has referred to journalists as the enemy of the American people,” anchor Jake Tapper said, looking into the camera hours after the insurrection. “Ask yourself, Who’s the enemy of the American people right now? It pretty clearly seems to be President Trump.”
It’s impressive to watch the broadcast now, after two years of reflection and investigations into the attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. Tapper and his colleagues got much right about the nature of the event and its dark place in the country’s history. They recognized it early on as an insurrection, and they were clear-eyed about Trump’s seditious role as the leader of the attack.
Their contemporaneous judgment has since been reinforced in court cases, news stories, congressional investigations and elsewhere. But CNN itself has effectively disavowed it. The network on Wednesday held a live prime-time town hall with Trump, hosted by anchor Kaitlan Collins.
The event was a betrayal of CNN viewers, and it set a dangerous precedent for other news outlets trying to figure out how to cover the campaign of a presidential candidate who led an attempted coup from the Oval Office.
The Trump campaign is an extraordinary news story that presents treacherous choices for reporters and editors. Journalists can’t rely on the old rules if they value truth, democracy, history’s approval and the country’s survival.
Here is how they should cover Trump’s candidacy.
1. The guiding tenet journalists should follow is that Trump is an adversary of the United States, and a person cannot be both an adversary of a country and a candidate to lead it.
News directors and editors who remember this premise will find it impossible to book Trump for something like a town hall in good faith. Town halls, debates and rallies are among the events that typically make the news during presidential election cycles. But coverage of such events confers legitimacy on participating candidates, and outlets that publish stories treating Trump as merely one among several presidential contenders will be complicit in sedition.
2. Journalists should vigorously report on Trump’s campaign with an emphasis on its illegitimacy.
Trump is the leading Republican candidate, and he might very well win the Republican nomination. News outlets should not ignore his campaign — on the contrary, Trump’s campaign should raise journalistic alarms, and every story about it should discredit his claim to office.
This is not a partisan or ideological position. There is practically infinite evidence, for anyone who accepts reality, of Trump’s destructive intent toward the Constitution. We all watched the Trump-instigated derangements of the “big lie” that he won the 2020 election. We all saw Trump whip up the violent passions of a mob and direct it to the Capitol on Jan. 6. We all understand that he conspired with allies to subvert the will of the voters and attempted to strongarm state officials into overturning President Joe Biden’s win.
Even top Republicans, including Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, said — at least when it seemed politically safe to do so — that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale.
“If this isn’t impeachable, I don’t know what is,” McConnell said privately in the days after the insurrection.
There is also a rock-solid legal basis for disqualifying Trump. The U.S. House did impeach Trump for “incitement of insurrection.” Last year, a U.S. district court judge, referring to Trump lawyer John Eastman, wrote, “Dr. Eastman and President Trump launched a campaign to overturn a democratic election, an action unprecedented in American history. Their campaign was not confined to the ivory tower — it was a coup in search of a legal theory.” The final report of the House committee that investigated Jan. 6 said Trump incited an insurrection.
Most journalists understand that Trump has no business being anywhere near the White House and that they have an objective obligation to warn their audience that his election would mean national self-destruction.
Perhaps most importantly, Section 3 of the 14th Amendment prohibits Trump from taking office. The constitutional clause says any office holder who engages in insurrection is barred from holding office again. (Lawsuits to enforce the clause are all but certain.) That leaves Trump automatically disqualified.
This is all pretty straightforward. Most journalists understand that Trump has no business being anywhere near the White House and that they have an objective obligation to warn their audience that his election would mean national self-destruction.
But confusion sets in with the pull of norms, inertia, peer pressure and — as appears to be the case with CNN — profits. Journalists are often at pains to avoid bias, but any supposed adherence to that principle is misplaced in covering Trump’s candidacy.
It is no bias to insist that what’s true is true, what’s real is real.
It is no bias to defend the Constitution against an autocrat.
It is no bias to state that election deniers are wrong, and the top election denier is disqualified.
3. Journalists must not mistake the familiar approach for the correct one.
A major political party might nominate a traitor for president, but journalists are not obliged to legitimize that candidate in deference to the party, because they are responsible to the higher authority of truth.
As the election season unfolds, journalists who aim to produce honest coverage might have to draw on imagination and courage, because they must discard modes of reporting established over decades of election cycles that involved legitimate candidates. Some journalists will fail this test, and Americans should flee their favorite news outlets for more trustworthy sources the moment they detect any sign of complacency as Trumpism resurges.
During CNN’s broadcast on Jan. 6, Tapper did not flinch from grave language to tell viewers the truth. “A horrible day for America. A horrible day, because the president of the United States is not able to acknowledge reality and because he has inspired his followers to commit many acts of domestic terrorism,” Tapper said.
You would think it journalistic malpractice for a news outlet to invite such a figure on stage as a prospective national leader. Honest journalists would never commit such an outrage.
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