If I were more religious, I would be convinced that God sent Donald Trump to test the press. And so far, the press has mostly failed.
If I were more religious, I would be convinced that God sent Donald Trump to test the press.
And so far, the press has mostly failed — with another "F" coming this past week as the president-elect again flexed his Twitter muscles. This time, he introduced the new normal for how information will flow from his presidency through the media ecosystem, with him in control.
Trump ran circles around the news media and reinvented presidential campaigning through the use of social media on his way to victory Nov. 8.
So why would anyone who has been paying attention to politics and media for the past 18 months be surprised or confused by seeing him now running circles around the press and reinventing the way a president-elect speaks to citizens through the use of Twitter and other social media?
But there was The New York Times with this headline Wednesday: "If Trump Tweets It, Is it News? A Quandary for the News Media."
Of course it's news. It doesn't matter what medium or platform the presidential information arrives on; it's the information that matters. With apologies to Marshall McLuhan, the medium is not necessarily the message. Skilled journalists should be able to evaluate the information for newsworthiness no matter what medium is used to deliver it. That's pretty much Journalism 101, no?
But maybe The Times, which regularly seemed befuddled by Trump's advanced media efforts during the election, sees the issue the way it does because it is one of the institutions with the most to lose. Previous White House press models privileged news outlets like The Times, which resulted in stories being fed or leaked to them in advance. Trump's new normal not only allows him to go around the press, but it also gives him a chance to kick publications like The Times in the teeth as he goes past, reminding them how irrelevant they ultimately were to the outcome of this election.
The intensity and near-total dominance with which the president-elect took over news cycles via Twitter starting Monday morning was a little chilling.
His Sunday-night tweets claiming he would have won the popular vote if millions had not been allowed to vote illegally drove the Monday news cycle — even though he offered no evidence for this outrageous claim.
A Tuesday-morning tweet saying that perhaps flag burners should be jailed or stripped of citizenship dominated that day, with wall-to-wall pundits chirping away on cable news about the First Amendment from their particular ideological perches. All of this even though the Supreme Court has ruled decisively that flag burning is protected speech.
Wednesday morning, Trump topped headlines again on radio, TV and most home pages with tweets claiming he and Vice President Mike Pence had saved 1,100 jobs at Carrier in Indiana and that he would hold a news conference on Dec. 15 to announce that he was handing off the management of his business empire while he ran the country.
I was standing at the kitchen sink making coffee Wednesday morning when I heard the first NPR report about the Dec. 15 event. It began with the words, "President-elect Donald Trump announced on social media today …"
I was struck not by the news, but rather by what I did not hear: "NPR has learned exclusively," or, "according to the Associated Press." No, now it's "President-elect Donald Trump announced on social media."
The AP reported the story a short time later at 7:53 a.m. Wednesday, telling readers Trump "tweeted" the news of his Dec. 15 corporate hand-off "in a series of missives sent before dawn."
The language was a little more dramatic, but Trump's tweets were still the source of the information. He was the one controlling the flow of information and the morning agendas of national news outlets.
During the campaign, I regularly compared Trump's deft use of media to that of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, the two most skilled media practitioner-politicians of the modern era. While they and their handlers mastered the use of TV in live and staged settings in the 1960s and '80s, respectively, Trump thrived in a far more challenging media environment today.
His triumph was in finding a sweet spot between TV and social media in this era of transition. He dominated host after host in live cable TV news settings. But he was even better on Twitter, where he somehow found a voice totally in sync with all the snark, anger, sarcasm, disregard for facts and mob mentality that rule there.
Kennedy and Reagan are not the presidents to look to in trying to gain perspective on Trump using Twitter to govern. The precedent here is Franklin Roosevelt using the new mass medium of radio to end-run the Washington press corps and speak directly to the American people during The Great Depression.
The first radio networks, NBC and CBS, were only five years old when Roosevelt took to the airwaves just eight days after his inauguration in 1933 to try to explain why banks were closed and what he was going to do to open them.
He understood the political potential of the medium like no other national politician of the era, and he used it effectively throughout his time in the White House despite being criticized by his foes for "demeaning" the presidency with it. That's a charge already being heard in connection with Trump seven weeks before his inauguration.
Getting our information from the president in 140-character bites is obviously problematic. It's fair to worry about this further dumbing down a national discourse that doesn't feel like it can go much lower without descending into a series of grunts.
But everything is getting shorter in all media when it comes to words. We are all but a visual culture driven by videos already.
This is part of a larger cognitive change in the culture driven by technologies we have embraced without any sense of how they might be rewiring our brains. If you want to reach the audience where it lives today, go short. Don't blame Trump for going there.
Twitter announcements also don't allow for any kind of follow-up questions either challenging what Trump said or seeking clarification. That's true. But the press conferences of Barack Obama and George W. Bush were so carefully orchestrated that most of the tough questions never got asked in the first place. And follow-ups were usually cut off before they could make a dent in presidential spin.
Obama granted more access to interviewers like GloZell Green, the YouTube video creator who ate cereal out of her bath water, than he did members of the mainstream media. It was his way of kicking us in the teeth.
The fact that Trump lies on Twitter and instantly reaches 16.4 million followers worries me most about the new normal.
But let's be fair. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were every bit the serial liars that Trump is — maybe worse. And what's the difference in the end whether the presidential lies come to us via Twitter or the lying lips of a press secretary? Would it have been a worse lie for Obama to tell us we could keep our doctors and our rates wouldn't go up under the Affordable Care Act if he had done it on Twitter?
And this might be a little extreme, but why can't Twitter be used to beat back Trump's lies? How about a truth posse challenging his lies each time he does it? Twitter mobs are something the president-elect seems to understand. Ask Megyn Kelly.
Trump's use of Twitter will present challenges for the press and larger ethical issues for the culture — no doubt about it. But what we in the news media need to do right now is calm down. We need to take a deep breath and systematically think through how we can counter them — with the focus on getting citizens good information rather than trying to punish Trump or take him down. Make this about public service, not personal attack.
This is what we didn't do during the campaign. Too many in the press blindly accepted the premise that Trump was unlike any candidate we had ever seen and, therefore, a new kind of coverage was demanded. That leap in logic opened the gate for all kinds of embarrassing behavior, from feeding candidates questions in advance of debates to calling one candidate a liar in news stories while ignoring the lies of the other.
Let's focus on serving the people — not embarrassing ourselves in covering the Trump presidency.