My moment in Donald Trump's presidential glow this year came months before he formally announced his candidacy for the presidency. I offer it now as a lesson for journalists — even a personal confession of sorts — as we approach yet another Trump run for the White House.
We hear much now about how Trump poses a dilemma for Republicans. How will they support or criticize him? Should they? Even Democrats are supposedly rethinking their strategies in dealing with him.
But another constituency is often missing in these discussions — the media. Can the media change the way we cover Trump?
This may be the hardest switch of all.
The media made Trump who he is. And despite what you may hear from Fox News and conspiracy theorists, the media loves having Trump around. He’s a “quote machine,” offering the most outlandish quips that juice up a news story. He’s also accessible. And when the spotlight veers away from him, he knows how to pour rhetorical chum into the water to bring journalists back into the hunt. It's like a drug or a highway crash you slow down to look at.
With that in mind, let me return to my Trumpian moment.
Remember Trump's tease in Bedminster?
It was last July, one of those days when the heat and humidity would melt Dante’s inferno – and maybe the devil himself. I stood near the first tee of Trump’s golf course in Bedminster, waiting for the former president to play “a celebrity round” with several professional golfers who had joined the controversial, Saudi-sponsored LIV tournament. Other "celebrities" included former basketball star Charles Barkley, transgender personality Caitlyn Jenner and two women described as influencers.
I was bored, maybe a little bit ticked off that I delayed finishing a serious commentary on how the Saudi government was trying to “sport-wash” its human rights abuses and alleged links to the 9/11 attacks by pouring millions into a golf tournament. Nonetheless, I turned off my laptop and walked over to the first tee just to see if Trump would “say something.”
He did. Of course. How could he not?
Jared and Ivanka Kushner chatted with several onlookers. Trump strode by in black pants, a white golf shirt and a red baseball cap adorned with his trademark mantra: “Make America Great Again.” From my spot behind the ropes, I pushed a button on my cellphone recording app and yelled: “Mister President are you going to announce another run for the White House?”
Somehow, I knew he couldn’t resist such a question. But as soon as I uttered those words, I knew in my gut that I was about to be used by Trump.
He stopped, turned, asked what newspaper I represented, then said: “Ah, you’re gonna be so happy. We’ll let you know pretty soon, OK?”
I wanted to ask a follow-up. But Trump turned, walked to the first tee and bashed a shot down the fairway. Within minutes, this so-called “news” was circling the planet: Trump is planning to make presidential announcement soon.
Of course, this “news” was nonsense — the sort of illusion Trump has served up for years, whether he was trumpeting steaks, the wonders of Atlantic City casinos, or even the fact that he claimed (falsely) that he was a billionaire. As a wise editor of mine might have remarked as he crushed another Marlboro cigarette in an ashtray of a smokey newsroom: “It’s total B.S. Don’t bother writing it until he actually does what he says he is going to do.”
But I wrote it anyway, dropping the “pretty soon” prediction into the middle of my Saudi commentary. Legions of my colleagues followed suit with their own stories. Meanwhile, Trump’s “pretty soon” prediction became a nearly four-month delay. But Trump got what he wanted that day. Just as the criticism mounted about Trump’s connection to Saudi “sport-washing,” Trump pushed his name into news again on a completely different topic.
Such is the problem with Trump that my beloved craft has to face in the coming year or two: He knows how to get his name in the news with “news” that is not news at all. More importantly, he knows how to push the spotlight from an embarrassing corner of his business and political life and refocus attention on something else. In other words, he’s as master at the game of bait and switch. The question now is whether the media will continue to play this game for yet another presidential campaign.
Can the media change?
This no small concern. In just the last few months, no less than Rutgers University, the Brookings Institution, the Washington Post’s media columnist and a Harvard government professor have all asked a variation of the same question: Can the media change the way it covers Trump?
In an interview for the Rutgers University’s website, professor of history and media studies David Greenberg posed a difficult question for journalists: “Donald Trump continues to dominate the news cycle whether he is in office or not. But if he continues to make headlines with the same outlandish statements, when does it stop being news?”
It needs to be said that Trump clearly tapped into a long-neglected segment of America when he first ran for the White House in 2016. That’s news. I know this firsthand, having reported from struggling coal mining towns in West Virginia, the ghostly remains of Ohio steel mills, rust belt towns in Pennsylvania that were emptied of hope and even retirement communities in blue New Jersey where people wonder what happened to their so-called American Dream.
But in acknowledging Trump’s ability to connect with this part of forgotten America, we also can’t ignore how his own failings that include his propensity to trade in false information and even to wrongly challenge the legitimacy of an election he lost — and then urge his followers to attack the U.S. Capitol. That’s news, too.
Jumping between serious reporting of the aggrieved followers of Trump and his penchant for hucksterism and outright lies is no easy task. Or as The Washington Post’s former media critic and author of the memoir, “Newsroom Confidential,” Margaret Sullivan noted: “The instincts and conventions of traditional journalism weren’t good enough for this moment in our country’s history.”
Some new rules for a new road
So what are some new rules for the new road to the White House? As we pass yet another Thanksgiving, I gratefully offer several places to start.
First, the media can’t remain silent in the fact of accusations that it trades in “fake news.” When Trump supporters accuse me of being too critical of Trump, I often answer with this challenge: “Do your homework.” The point here is that journalists need to stand up to false criticism. Silence is acquiescence.
Second, monitor Trump’s social media tirades, but don’t necessarily report them.
Third, be mindful that access to Trump does not necessarily lead to a newsworthy statement. In other words, just because Trump says something, we don’t need to repeat it.
Fourth, keep lists of Trump’s falsehoods, but don’t stop there. In news stories, if Trump makes a false statement, say that it’s false. When it comes to lies and trading in inaccurate information, there are not two sides to the story.
Fifth, monitor Trump’s rallies and his campaign stops. But don’t necessarily promote or even report them.
This final point may be the most difficult and not just for cable news stations that are essentially built around the concept of building up a potential news story before it actually takes place. As I learned on the golf course last July, Trump has a unique ability to float tantalizing chunks of promises that can be entertaining and occasionally funny — all disguised as news.
But the road to the White House is not entertainment or the news equivalent of a reality TV show. As we face the end of yet another year of Trump in the news, it’s time journalism faced that.
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Donald Trump: Can the US media change the way it covers him?