President Donald Trump’s challenges to Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential race have triggered escalating concerns over a turbulent transition process and what it portends for democratic stability, but the most justified fears may be that the electorate has split into alternate information universes.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 52% of Republicans said that Trump “rightfully” won the election, and only 29% said that about Biden.
It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where an ex-president Trump continues his rallies and tweets, all with his false claims that the election was stolen from him, and tries to dominate news cycles by dangling the prospect of a 2024 run. It’s always possible that he will do what his predecessors have done, which is to recede from the limelight, but does that even sound like Donald Trump?
There is incentive for news outlets to try to keep the drama all going, and no doubt there will be news value: Trump will remain an influential figure in the Republican Party, and his potential candidacy will have an impact on who enters the race and who does not.
But does that mean that he will warrant coverage of every rally and every tweet?
“I think a post-Trump presidency will actually present journalism with a more profound dilemma than anything they have confronted before and certainly what they confronted during his presidency,” said Frank Sesno, director of strategic initiatives at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and longtime anchor and correspondent for CNN.
“How do news organizations cover a former president who has doggedly rejected reality, fuels conspiracies, undermines public trust, sabotages his successors and delights in breaking the norms that have been observed almost since George Washington passed the batons of power? When he is actually out, how will news organizations cover the former president when he holds a rally attended by 5,000 people, calls Joe Biden a ‘pretend’ president?”
He said that Trump “may actually be saying newsworthy things even if they are complete fabrications,” but networks will be in the position of deciding whether to ignore Trump, cover him a bit but not dwelling on his actions, or going all in and covering him live.
We have been getting some sense of it in the past couple weeks, with a glimpse of how networks have handled Trump’s intransigence versus Biden’s transition.
Normally this would be a period focused almost exclusively on the incoming president and his efforts to form a government. That is happening, but Trump’s election challenges, and the prospect that he is trying to influence the vote certification process to overturn the results, is obviously a momentous story as well.
Perhaps the best peek at the networks’ approaches came on Thursday, when Trump tweeted out that his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, would be holding a press conference to run through his campaign’s claims of electoral fraud. CNN and MSNBC skipped it, but Fox News covered it live and in its entirety. When it was over, though, Fox News White House correspondent Kristin Fisher did a fact check. “So much of what he said was simply not true or has already been thrown out in court,” she said.
The broadcast networks, meanwhile, have been leading their evening news with stories on the escalating coronavirus pandemic.
Still, Trump’s ability to command attention, particularly at this moment and with baseless claims, should be somewhat concerning for Biden as he enters his presidency. CNBC’s Jim Cramer tweeted, “I want to stick to stocks. I can’t as long as we don’t know for certain who will be in the Oval Office. Biden has to start taking charge and get the current president off the front pages…”
CBS News’ John Dickerson wrote, “The president has two strategies: a legal one that is failing because of the below, and a second one: a chaos strategy, in evidence for weeks, but which the below will encourage. The second one is of greatest concern, has the potential to do the most harm and requires comment.”
Andrew Heyward, senior research professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, said that the post-Trump period “is going to be challenging for news organizations because we are heading into new territory historically. It’s going to test the news judgments of our journalistic institutions. There is that tension, and that is exacerbated when he is no longer in power.”
In other words, if Trump presents himself as “the de facto president of red America, constantly appealing to his base, criticizing what is going on in Washington and with a strong grip on the GOP, that is newsworthy. The risk is amplifying Trump’s pronouncements when they are purely self promotional and not true.”
He said that he hopes that on the TV side they “do not gravitate to Trump just because he is good copy. Cable news is going to be tempted to give Trump attention” but the hope is that they exercise a sense of proportion in how much coverage to give to him.
Strangely enough, if Trump were to start a Trump TV channel or secure a regular gig on some conservative outlet, that actually may make it easier for networks to decide how to cover Trump. “Trump will be marginalized much faster if he does a network thing. Then he is just another voice in the media,” Sesno said.
Trump also will no longer have the power of the presidential bully pulpit. Heyward said, “You could imagine a scenario where, as soon as he is out of office, his influence fades more than people are expecting.”
Another aspect of the Trump’s post presidency will be how he handles legal troubles, particularly in New York, as well as his real estate business.
Already, there is a sense that something has to change not necessarily in the way that Trump is covered, but in the way they news outlets capture the extent of his greater-than-expected support. Biden benefited from record turnout, but so did Trump.
Earlier this week, when she was honored with the Fourth Estate Award from the National Press Club, CBS News president Susan Zirinsky said, “The nation is divided. More than 73 million people voted for the candidate not elected. In order to heal the divide, we as journalists have to report on the divide fairly. In order to understand what separates us as people, we have to understand what they’re going through, their beliefs, their guiding principles. We have to understand. We have to have empathy.”
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