Revisiting news coverage of Trump’s anti-media rhetoric

President Donald Trump’s anti-press rhetoric has backed news outlets and their reporters into corners. They cannot offer full-throated defenses of themselves, for that would come off as biased (although sometimes they do this anyway). Yet they also cannot look cowed in the face of someone they are supposed to cover fearlessly.

What to do?

My thesis addressed three operative questions: What are the different kinds of attacks by Trump on the press? How do news media outlets use tone in responding to Trump’s attacks on them in their own reporting? And what forms of thematic content are repeated? The findings don’t answer, but may provide clues to, whether journalists accept the current paradigm between Trump and themselves. The findings also identify potential strategies for telling the story of Trump’s prolonged battle with the press.

I finished my thesis in May, but this topic is relevant until Trump sings Kumbaya with the news media. Consider The New York Times’ “newsroom town hall,” held in August, where employees discussed strategies to report on Trump and his racism. Some reporters and editors worried the paper could go too far in repudiating Trump’s racism, while other (younger) reporters and editors “generally feel The Times should be more aggressive and explicit in its coverage of Trump,” according to a CNN article.

I used textual analysis to determine what forms of thematic content are repeated in coverage from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN of Trump’s attacks on the outlets. I analyzed 24 stories — eight CNN stories, eight Post stories and eight Times stories. The findings show a multitude of reportorial strategies and various types of repeated tones and narratives. The bottom line: The Times, The Post and CNN don’t know how, exactly, to cover Trump’s combative relationship with the news media.

The news media have no collective voice or effective plan to deal with Trump’s bullying. Some executive editors at major news media outlets don’t think such a position befits them, that it could endanger their stances as impartial arbiters. So, these outlets are dealing with Trump’s abuses individually. The Trump phenomenon remains unsolved.

It’s not for lack of trying. The Post, The Times and CNN produce a plethora of content on Trump’s attacks on their namesakes and their peers. And it is apparent after analyzing these stories that these outlets will not simply accept Trump’s disrespect toward them. Whether through implication, suggestion or outright rejection, CNN, The Times and The Post have attempted to place themselves in the role of truth-teller, with Trump as their foil.

One tactic often employed by the three news outlets was to emphasize how extraordinary or abnormal Trump’s treatment of the news media has been. All three outlets had multiple articles that tried to show how, for example, “President Trump’s biting attacks on the press this week stand out,” according to a 2019 Times article. In essence, these outlets are saying that it is not the news media that have changed — journalists are doing their jobs as they have been for decades — it is the President of the United States.

Another move was to portray Trump as a hypocrite. The Times, CNN and The Post noted that at times Trump was “seemingly relishing the confrontation” in his mix-ups with the news media, per a 2018 CNN article. Or, even more appropriately, he would go back and forth between expressing support and admiration for the news media and denigrating it.

Each outlet repeatedly quoted representatives of their outfits — be it an editor, a publisher, or a spokesperson — saying that the organization stood by the reporting of stories Trump challenged. A central problem is how to remain credible while quoting yourself.

Yet another theme/tone was to display concern or issue warnings about Trump’s devaluing and discrediting of the free press. These were found prominently in the sourcing — First Amendment advocates, university journalism and media professors and the White House Press Correspondents’ Association, for example. This sort of writing is always preceded or followed by a lofty tone invoking a noble struggle against the powers that be. But, whether it is a CNN story saying reporter Jim Acosta is ready to get back to work, a Times story detailing its deep investigative dive into Trump’s family finances, or a Post story referencing the paper’s executive editor’s position of “we’re just doing our jobs,” all three outlets hedged their bets, likely in order to avoid coming off as too liberal. Each news organization positioned itself as both objective, shoe-leather journalists who simply want the truth and town criers out to alert the masses to Trump’s assault on the “once-sacrosanct American notion” of “freedom of the press.”

Each outlet repeatedly quoted representatives of their outfits — be it an editor, a publisher, or a spokesperson — saying that the organization stood by the reporting of stories Trump challenged.

A central problem is how to remain credible while quoting yourself.

Something else that, while true, may not have painted the publications in the best light was their collective comparisons of Trump to disgraced leaders like Stalin or Nixon. All three outlets were quick to note that Trump has a pattern of stirring up anger toward the press when an outlet publishes a story he finds unflattering. And all three outlets used the term “enemy of the people” in the headlines and the bodies of their stories. That phrase was a more telling factor in whether CNN, The Post or The Times would cover a story than the words “fake news.”

The three news outlets had critical differences, too.

The Times viewed Trump’s hostility through a much wider lens. Its stories had big-picture thinking about the ramifications of Trump’s attacks as well as his motives for attacking the press. The Post was the most bold, direct and mocking of the three outlets. It consistently called out Trump’s false statements, and it was not shy about highlighting Trump’s habits with the news media. CNN mostly oscillated between “defensive,” “bold” and “high-minded.” This could be a function of the fact that these stories were explicitly about its battles with Trump, both in the briefing room and the courtroom, and because Trump, as noted by both The Times and The Post, targets CNN more than any other outlet.

Perhaps most alarming about my work, though, is what I didn’t find: research in the same vein. I didn’t find anything of weight specifically studying how news outlets respond to claims of fake news and other attacks of that kind. Consider this my call for further research, then. This topic matters! It is a perfect example of when journalism studies can be effective, of the crisis point where news media outlets inherently fail to examine themselves.

For the many flaws of The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, they are still crucial to the goal of informing the public. Not to go all “Democracy dies in darkness” on you, but it does. And it’s not just the behemoths of this industry at stake — it is local, regional and state outlets as well. I work as a reporter for The Day, a newspaper in southeastern Connecticut, and even here, where politicians claim they are immune to the national partisan divide, sources of all stripes tell me my employer is, and comment on my colleagues’ stories, “Fake news!” The time has come to find a solution to the onslaught, though no one person or media organization has the answers.



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