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Why the Press Downplays Trump's Violent Rhetoric
Keeping Trump's calls for violence off the air won't prevent another Jan 6th, it will enable it
There is a strange contradiction in the press coverage of the 2024 presidential campaign. On one hand, the press is frothing at the mouth about the polls that show Donald Trump with a slight lead over Joe Biden. There are endless articles, columns, and cable panels about whether Democrats need to seek a different candidate. The tone and tenor is that Donald Trump could easily return to the White House. At the same moment, the same press is giving scant coverage to the violent rhetoric espoused by Donald Trump.
In recent months, Trump:
Threatened the judges and prosecutors involved in his cases, including exhorting his supporters to “go after” New York Attorney General Leticia James;
Suggested that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be put to death for treason;
Ridiculed Nancy Pelosi about the violent assault on her husband by Trump supporters; and
Proposed the death penalty for shoplifters as part of his second-term agenda.
Under different circumstances, these sorts of comments from a leading presidential candidate would dominate politics. Yet, Trump’s comments garnered a muted modicum of coverage. In recent days, Joe Biden’s dog biting members of the White House staff gained about as much media attention as some of Trump’s comments.
This is a massive abdication of the media’s self-professed responsibility to hold power accountable and inform the public. Ignoring such a big story that would undoubtedly drive ratings and clicks is bizarre. Even putting aside the public service aspect of journalism, their decision to downplay Trump’s dangerous remarks is just bad business.
There is no grand conspiracy of media barons trying to tip the election to the candidate that drives better ratings. Instead, the reasons why are depressingly mundane and demonstrate that, eight years later, most of the political media is culturally unable to accurately and responsibly cover Donald Trump.
1. An Overcorrection for Past Errors
From the moment he came down that escalator at Trump Tower, the political media was addicted to the “Trump Show.” The racist reality star was a one-man stimulus bill for a struggling industry. Ratings, traffic, and revenue went up. He was so good for ratings that during the 2016 campaign CNN infamously broadcasted empty podiums at Trump rallies to keep people watching. The Sunday Show hosts were so desperate to book Trump that they let him call into the show. Think about that — a television host let someone do a radio interview. Every one of his tweets drove news cycles. Trump’s lies were taken live on TV and quoted on Twitter. Many news organizations like the Washington Post and CNN assiduously fact-checked Trump after the fact; but the damage was done.
That all changed after January 6th. On that day, the press realized the danger of allowing a known liar to exploit their platforms to spread dangerous lies. MSNBC and CNN stopped taking live final press conferences in the White House. His false assertions about the election were downplayed for fear that they would spark more violence. The social media platforms banned Trump. For more than a year, Donald Trump was absent from the public stage.
And it’s not just the media. “Stop platforming Trump” is a rallying cry of some on the Left. It’s why some refuse to use his name and call him “The Former Guy.” NBC News and CNN were lambasted for their decisions to have Trump on air. Even some Message Box readers (the most astute community on the Internet) get annoyed when I write about Trump.
Ignoring Trump was the right decision at the time, but it was based on the mistaken assumption that Trump would recede into history as a past-his-prime crank. There was no journalistic imperative to cover Trump’s dangerous rhetoric — and risk amplifying it.
But while the context has changed dramatically, the coverage plan remained stagnant. The public needs to know what Trump is saying.
2. The Banality of Crazy
Brian Klass, a political science professor at University College London, coined the phrase “The Banality of Crazy” to describe how the press covers Trump. As he wrote in The Atlantic:
Trump scandals have become predictably banal. And American journalists have become golden retrievers watching a tennis-ball launcher. Every time they start to chase one ball, a fresh one immediately explodes into view, prompting a new chase.
Eventually, chasing tennis balls gets old. We become more alive to virtually any distraction: The media fixate on John Fetterman’s hoodie instead of on stories about the relentless but predictable risk of Trump-inspired political violence.
Put another way, the media covers things that are new and unexpected. In their mind, Trump saying crazy things is not “news.” What if Joe Biden came out tomorrow and called on his supporters to “go after” the Republican members of Congress leading the impeachment inquiry? I bet that would make some news. Two people with equal shots of being President in January of 2025, but two different standards of what gets covered.
3. Serious, Not Literal, Coverage
Salena Zito, a conservative reporter who was briefly en vogue as a Trump whisperer, tried to explain Trump’s election despite his absurd and alarmist rhetoric:
The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.
Zito’s notion is overly facile and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny (like some of her reporting). I also think she has it exactly backwards in terms of media coverage of the former President. The problem is that the media doesn’t take Trump literally enough. Trump says a lot of crazy shit. He is always making threats and promises without following through. During the Trump presidency, if you pushed reporters on why some insane tweet or utterance was not a bigger story, they insisted that he didn’t really mean a lot of what he said. What Trump does is more important than what he says. I was somewhat sympathetic to that approach. Trump was a veritable firehose of content — news organizations simply didn’t have the resources to give ample attention to everything.
However, that argument is embarrassingly inoperative after January 6th. The “Big Lie” was not the rantings of a delusional leader — but the rallying cry for a violent faction of extremists to take matters into their own hands. The press may not take Trump literally, but his supporters certainly do.
Resolving the Dilemma
Most political reporters are good people trying their best under very difficult circumstances. Even if they want to do the job the right way they are constrained by an outdated industry culture and a business model that incentivizes all of the wrong things. There are — of course — bad actors pushing personal and ideological agendas, but they are the exceptions not the rule. The media critic Dan Froomkin explained the choice before the press in his Presswatchers newsletter:
To amplify or not to amplify? That is the question political journalists are wrestling with as Donald Trump engages in increasingly explosive rhetoric seemingly every day.
Both options are widely seen as fraught.
On the one hand, amplifying him rewards him and risks even further radicalizing his supporters, potentially inciting violence.
On the other hand, how could any self-respecting journalist simply tune out the unhinged and dangerous hyperbole from the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination?
But as Froomkin points out — even if the question is hard, the answer is obvious. Trump’s violent rhetoric and extremist positions are a big story. It’s, perhaps, the defining issue of the upcoming election. And the press needs to start treating it that way.