Coverage of Trump is first draft of history
Stories in The New York Times, The Washington Post and elsewhere have hurt President Donald Trump badly with their disclosures about Michael Flynn’s dealings with Russia and Turkey, and the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
The role of news media in the process of telling Trump’s story deserves the same kind of thorough examination that journalists are giving the presidency, Congress, political parties and other institutions.
I usually write about Jewish community and political affairs in this column. But, having been a journalist for years, I thought my opinion on the Trump news coverage might be helpful to our readers. When I think about them, I visualize intelligent, informed women and men vitally interested in public affairs whose political opinions range all over the lot, an interest often heightened by a special concern about Israel.
First, consider the speed and quantity of the news flow. Because of that, some of the stories may turn out to be misstated, overblown or even contradicted the next day.
The flow is fed by the 24-7 demands of cable news, fiercely competing websites and newspapers. Feeding the news are leaks and unpredictable outbursts by Trump on Twitter or in person.
There’s a lemming-like quality to the coverage. A lemming, as defined by the Urban Dictionary, is “a member of a crowd with no originality or voice of his own.” This is a harsh way to describe the press corps. But the journalists do jump en masse from one hot development to another without a pause for a breath or reflection. Such coverage can be misleading as well as confusing. Each development flashes on your phone or television screen at minute-by-minute pace. It begins before dawn with Trump’s tweets, picking up the pace instantly as reporters follow them, becoming hysterical when lawmakers are interviewed midday and then sinking into incoherence in the evening when the huge panels of commentators weigh in.
A graphic example of journalists following one another blindly and thoughtlessly was last month’s coverage of the American bombing of a Syrian air base. But whatever happened with that bombing? There has not been much follow-up coverage of it since the Trump investigation began.
Follow-up, context and history matter — they reduce confusion and separate the responsible journalists from the lemmings.
Follow-up, context and history matter — they reduce confusion and separate the responsible journalists from the lemmings. The other day, I was grateful to Rachel Maddow for taking the first half-hour or so of her show to give a clear, thoughtful explanation of Watergate, the special counsel and obstruction of justice, and how they relate to the Trump-Russia investigation. She began with a description of her mother watching the Watergate hearings on television while she held a newborn Rachel. She ended with a concise explanation of the history and duties of the special counsel.
Special counsel Robert Mueller looks as though he will conduct a deep investigation, avoiding news coverage as much as possible. But there will be stories, many of them leaked from the separate Senate and House investigations.
How can the consumer of news sort through all this?
You have to slow down, even if the journalists can’t. This story has a long way to go. It may be months or longer for Mueller and his staff to complete their work. Meanwhile, you’ll be bombarded with accounts of developments billed as “bombshells.” As I’m writing this, two stories have emerged. One, from The New York Times, was that Trump told Russian officials that his firing Comey had taken great pressure off him and that Comey was “a real nut job.” The other, from The Washington Post, reported the federal investigation has tagged a current White House official as a “significant person of interest.”
To absorb what this means in one afternoon is impossible. Does it add up to an eventual Trump indictment for attempting to obstruct justice? Or will it just become more background noise, forgotten amid more important developments?
Remember, you are watching history, and you don’t know how it will turn out. I covered Richard M. Nixon from his 1968 presidential campaign to the day he stepped off his plane at El Toro Marine Air Base, having just resigned the presidency. I was faced with deadlines at all times, and my goal was to get the story in quickly and not be beaten by the competition. I never thought of history, an exception being when I watched Nixon, with an odd, unsteady gait, walk toward the crowd of thousands waiting to greet him. This was the last chapter of his political history.
Today’s reporters covering Trump are observing history and don’t know how it will end, any more than you do. Their contributions should be hailed and their mistakes understood if not forgiven.
Their dilemma was well described in a 1959 essay in the Nieman Reports by the late Thomas Griffith, a distinguished editor of Time magazine.
“Journalism is in fact history on the run,” Griffith wrote. “It is history written in time to be acted upon: thereby not only recording events but at times influencing them. … Journalism is also the recording of history while the facts are not all in. Yet, any planner of battles knows the eternal conflict between needing to know enough to act, and needing to act in time: a problem in journalism as in diplomacy and warfare.
“If journalism is sometimes inaccurate and often inadequate, ignorance would not be preferable.”
BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).