Donald Trump’s presidency is posing a unique challenge to the media. A few journalists and publications are taking that challenge seriously. For example, Derek Thompson at the Atlantic has rightly described the president’s constant stream of lies as a virus and suggested that the media often plays host by simply reporting the lies, especially in headlines and tweets.
In epidemiology, a virus cannot multiply on its own. First, it must find a host, whose cellular machinery it commandeers to reproduce. For a virus, all distribution—all amplification—is infection.
So it is for Trump. The president’s conspiratorial language is an odious virus that has found a variety of hosts in the U.S. media ecosystem. The traditional news media amplify his words for a variety of reasons, including newsworthiness (he is, after all, the president), easy ratings (cable-news audiences have soared in his term), and old-fashioned peer pressure (the segment producer’s lament: “If everybody else is carrying Trump, shouldn’t we?”).
But a virus doesn’t just borrow a host’s cellular factory to reproduce; it often destroys the host in the process. So, too, does the president seek to destroy the traditional news media that have often amplified his messages.
That metaphor provides an excellent context for the love-hate relationship Trump seems to have with the media. So, of course, Thompson asks the question about how journalists should respond to the fact that “the president of the United States is today the single most potent force for misinforming the American public,” averaging about 100 lies a week. He identifies the problem with simple fact-checking:
It’s not obvious that fact-checking is always effective against the Trump virus. On the one hand, there is considerable cognitive research to suggest that fact-checks can backfire. Several studies have found that repeated phrases and ideas create a sense of familiarity in the mind, and familiarity can create the illusion of truth. That’s because many people—particularly the elderly and less educated—easily conflate familiarity (“That sounds familiar”) with factuality (“That sounds about right”).
In the end, he admits that there is no cure for this virus, but:
This isn’t the case for hopelessness. It’s the case for seeing the world as it is, which is the purpose of journalism in the first place. All the responsible press can do is to honor a social compact that, despite the wrenching changes under Trump, remains firmly in place: Seek the truth, for those who care to know it.
I read Thompson’s piece just as I was thinking about how my writing on the current president has evolved over time. To understand that evolution, there is a question I ask myself every day when I think about what to write: what I can add to the conversation that people might not already know or understand?
In the beginning, those questions led to a lot of fact-checking. We needed to understand that Donald Trump lies…a lot. But it also meant providing context for the lies. As I’ve tried to point out over and over again, there are patterns to the lies that are the basis on which many of us have concluded that he is fundamentally unfit for office. By now, most of us who, as Thompson suggested, “care to know,” understand that. While it is important to provide periodic reminders, it no longer needs to be the focus.
The 2018 midterm elections and aftermath have provided a wonderful antidote to all of the focus on Trump. We saw for ourselves what Democratic alternatives could look like, and we have begun to envision what it will take to beat him in 2020 (if he lasts that long). In the coming months, that will be the story to cover, along with the Mueller investigation.
I hope that gives you some idea of how my writing about Trump has evolved over the course of his presidency and what you can expect from me here at Political Animal. As our editor in chief Paul Glastris wrote on Monday, the Washington Monthly attempts to perform a bit of a two-step for those who seek the truth.
On the one hand, our web-focused writers and editors…provide you with keen analysis of breaking news. On the other hand, our print-focused team…help shape Washington policy conversations by focusing relentlessly on new ideas that the political class has yet to recognize…all with the strategic aim of crafting a policy vision that can move the country forward and appeal not just to Democrats but to fed up independents and Republicans, too.
That is how all of us here at the Washington Monthly are refusing to play host to Donald Trump’s virus. If you appreciate our efforts, I hope that you will take a moment to contribute financially. We can’t do this without you. Right now, you can double your impact because every donation will be matched dollar for dollar, thanks to a generous grant we’ve received from NewsMatch. Please click on the banner below and join us by making a tax-deductible contribution. Thank you!