The only institution that has taken nearly as much battering as the Republican Party since the rise of Donald Trump is the Fourth Estate. After giving Trump months of wall-to-wall coverage in print and on television, the media has been accused by everyone from Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton of intentionally favoring Trump and giving him excessive amounts of publicity. (Jim Rutenberg, in his debut column as media critic for the New York Times, referred to the unprecedented “disturbing symbiosis” between the candidate and the media.) Trump’s rise elicits a number of ethical and practical questions about how the media should cover him. Should a clear bigot be dealt with in a “balanced” manner? How can you not cover someone if he is, by almost any definition, making news?
To discuss these questions and others, I called up Daniel Okrent, the journalist and author who is perhaps best-known for serving as the New York Times’ first public editor. (In his spare time, he also invented Rotisserie League Baseball.) We discussed the value of remaining fair, no matter the circumstances, and what Trump’s mastery of social media portends for the future of American politics. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Isaac Chotiner: What has been your main takeaway from the media’s coverage of Trump thus far?
Daniel Okrent: To the degree that I’ve been thinking about how the media covers Trump, it’s really thinking about the criticism of the media for giving Trump so much space and time. There was a piece in the New York Times that came up with kind of a bullshit figure of the value of the free time that he’s gotten as being over $1 billion dollars. It’s an interesting phenomenon to point out, but I wouldn’t criticize the media for it, as a lot of people are. They are saying, you know, “Why are you spending so much time on this guy when there are substantive issues to talk about?” Tell me when he has a rally and somebody gets punched in the face for protesting that we shouldn’t cover that. Every time there’s another explosion, I’m wondering, how could you not cover it? He’s making news. The news media are not making the news; he’s making the news.
I think the argument would be that there was an earlier point in time, before he became so dangerous, when the media gave him tons of free coverage and air time and helped his rise.
I’d have to look back at what the media was doing last summer and early fall. If that’s a fair criticism, and I’m stipulating that, whatever the media they gave him, he sustained what came out of that. The media didn’t keep the interest going. I suppose it’s possible that there was too much attention paid to the novelty of Trump, but the degree that we are still getting all Trump all the time has nothing to do with that.
Right, but there is the New York Times writing articles about him constantly, and CNN and MSNBC and Fox are giving him endless interviews where they don’t really ask tough questions, and airing all of his rallies and press conferences, which they don’t do for the other candidates.
Right, but let’s take an example of his press conference, when the networks stayed with Trump instead of cutting to Hillary Clinton. I think it’s a fair criticism, to a point. On the other hand, if I’m making a judgment: Who is more likely to be saying something that’s of interest to our viewers right now? It is a choice between an empty victory speech and somebody who might be saying something that is essential for my viewers to know. It’s tough. I understand the nature of the complaint.
I don’t think the calculation you are making is the one the television networks are making, sorry to say.
[Laughs.] Now you are stating it differently: What would I do, rather than how they are doing it. They are doing it because it is more interesting television. Period. That’s the usual justification. It’s the same reason they don’t cover hearings on the trade deficit.
So has there been anything that’s worried you as a media watcher and critic?
Yeah. I think they have been giving him interviews where they are letting him off the hook way too easily and not pinning him down.
I have definitely perceived some straight news reporters, either on Twitter or on television, kind of tip their hands and display a lack of neutrality when discussing Trump, especially after the KKK stuff and his encouragement of violence at his rallies. I am not sure whether I have a problem with that, but maybe there is one.
It’s hard to say in the abstract. The specifics of the moment, or how it is phrased, are critical. I think there is no question that a lot of reporters and editors are horrified, and that their horror creeps into the prose. I think it is unavoidable. Is it good? I don’t know. You have to judge it on a case-by-case basis.
What about the case of a quasi-fascist who is saying racist and bigoted things?
A news reporter calling him quasi-fascist—I don’t think that is a good idea. Let the columnists call him that. Report what he says. Describe the nature of his appeal.
We wouldn’t look back on a reporter who was biased in favor of letting black people vote in Alabama in 1965 and assail them. We would say it was an issue where there weren’t two sides with equal claims. Perhaps we will one day look back on this period the same way.
Yeah, I think that’s fair. I am afraid to say that I am old enough to remember that there was criticism of the way that some of the national media covered the civil rights movement and the support they gave to it. They took shit for it. And the defense at the time was, look, if they are putting police dogs and high-powered fire hoses on children, you bet I am going to show that and how awful it is. And that is comparable to this. You are going to show what this guy is saying and what his crowds are saying because it is important, and if that shows bias, that is something you have to live with. But using words like “quasi-fascist appeal”—I would strike that from a reporter’s copy if I were the editor.
If you were running a major news organization right now—
And thank God I’m not.
Would you try to cover Trump differently?
I pretty much rely on the New York Times and online stuff from a variety of places. I have not been disappointed by the Times’ coverage, but I think at times it has been a little specious in terms of digging up things from Trump’s past. But the Times is specious like that about all political candidates, in terms of digging up stuff someone did as a teenager. Do you really need to tell me what he did in some negotiation in 1987? Or is that a waste of newsprint? I don’t know.
Trump has obviously been very dominant on social media. Do you think he is sui generis or are we in a new political era where candidates have more control over their images?
Well, I don’t know if it is control. I think that his mastery of social media, which is quite impressive, or his willingness to jump personally into social media, is not easy to do if you aren’t saying outrageous things. Every time he says what he says there are two kinds of responses: The Trump boosters retweet it to their universe and the anti-Trump people retweet it to their universe. He knows how to get attention. How would John Kasich approach that? Well, he wouldn’t say the kinds of things Trump says online! So yes, I do think he is a master of Twitter. But that mastery would be meaningless if he was saying the kinds of things that most politicians say.
So then I suppose the real problem is the giant chunk of people who get their truth from him, or from other places they agree with, and filter everything else out.
Yeah, that is a danger, and one that has been around for a long time. To me, that is the central danger of the digital age in politics: one’s ability to choose the source you are going to get your news from. And I suppose you could criticize me because I get my news, overwhelmingly, from the Times. And my defense of the Times may seem to someone who only relies on Breitbart to be as partisan as I think relying on Breitbart is. It’s a really bad situation.
When I was the public editor during the 2004 campaign, I would get an email criticizing the Times for clearly supporting Bush because there was a picture of him smiling on Page 1 looking really good. And then I would ask the person: “Did you see the picture of Kerry on Page 1 yesterday?” And they would say, “I didn’t know that.” Because what is normal in your worldview is fact, and what is upsetting to your worldview is bias. So the smiling Bush, to the Kerry supporter, ran contrary to their view of Bush, and therefore they noticed it. And they didn’t notice John Kerry because he was like the weather, because he was their guy, hard as it was to believe he was anyone’s guy. But that’s a different issue altogether.
You perceive what you wish to perceive and the more you narrow your media choices, the more you are putting yourself in that trap.
Do you think the media has any ability to prevent this phenomenon from getting worse and worse?
I wish I knew how. I know too many people on both right and left, although I know more people on the left, because that is the world I live in, who choose the news media based on the degree to which the news media agrees with them. Even if you are getting your news from, to my mind, a very reliable and straight publication, you can choose what you are reading there to conform to what you already believe.
That raises the question of whether Trump could have existed in an earlier environment. I know we had George Wallace, but still, do you think Trump could have risen 40 or 50 years ago?
I don’t know. George Wallace was certainly in a very narrow media environment, with three networks. If you know how to manipulate the news media, you are going to get the attention. Wallace knew how to do that, and Trump knows how to do it. Trump is better at it, I think. And he was aided by not coming into it with the same baggage. Wallace, in 1968, already had prominent national attention as a racist.
Maybe the answer is that it was possible for a third-party person to do something like this, but to do so within the confines of a major party requires a collapse of trust in elite institutions.
Oh sure, without question. The parties democratized the nomination process and they are paying the price for it.
We may finally, then, get the long-time reporter’s dream of a contested convention.
Yeah, exactly. I can’t tell you how many times news organizations I was close to went to the convention thinking that it was 1952. What are you here for? I’d think. Nothing is going to happen. But now we may finally get the most exciting thing that a reporter can cover.