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Cracking Trump's Power Over the Press

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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You’d think it would be easy for reporters to call out Donald Trump. After all, he says outrageous things, shows a basic ignorance of how the U.S. government works and peddles the same falsehoods over and over. But nothing is simple about the new Republican standard-bearer. 

Think about it. Every politician lies occasionally. Most of them have made statements that at least some people find outrageous. And even well-informed elected officials sometimes reveal lack of deep knowledge about a subject. So how can reporters in their daily coverage convey how far from the norm Trump is? 

His flip-flops on whether he will release his tax returns are just the latest example of the challenge he continues to pose for the press.

Reporters are good at digging through a politician’s financial records and informing the public what’s in them. And they are even better at hounding presidential candidates who have been dragging their feet to release their returns in the first place (as nominees have done since Jimmy Carter). Just ask Mitt Romney, who was beat up constantly for the delay in releasing his records in 2012.

But in the recent era, we’ve never had a candidate who flat-out refused to go along. This isn’t a criticism of the press for not trying hard enough to force him to do it. It’s a recognition that the reality-television star is so different from previous major-party nominees that normal coverage may be inadequate to properly inform voters about what they need to know.

The problem for the media is that once Trump shuts the door, the tax-return story isn’t news anymore, unless his general-election opponent is a broken record about it. It will seem like old business by fall -- even though voters who don’t pay attention until then (which includes a lot of them) won’t know about it.

The challenge isn’t limited to Trump’s refusal to release his financial records. The well-documented coverage of his disregard for the truth hasn’t deterred him from continuing to repeat the same falsehoods or, in a few cases, to deny that he ever said something to begin with. 

There are also his outrageous statements, such as his insult that John McCain and other U.S. prisoners of war were not heroes, a remark he has defended anew: “There are many people that like what I said,” Trump said this week. “You know after I said that, my poll numbers went up seven points.”

Other off-the-wall proclamations -- such as his support of nuclear proliferation, or his accusation that the Mexican government is deliberately exporting criminals to the U.S. -- may never make headlines again, but are still important for adequately explaining what Trump stands for.

And then there’s Trump’s demonstrated ignorance of government and public affairs, as with his proposed “haircut” for U.S. debt, the latest in a series of basic-level flubs

Dan Drezner has said pundits are reduced to finding different ways to say that Trump is a “narcissistic, ignorant, misogynistic gasbag.” I don’t think HuffPost’s disclaimer, calling him a “liar” and a “racist” in an editor’s note attached to every article about him, is particularly helpful. Nor is it something that most media outlets would feel comfortable doing anyway. For Trump, it’s just another example of media bias against him, a way of keeping the press on the defensive.  

I have no obvious solution. Those who cover him can be prepared to remind readers and viewers what has already been debunked (no, he didn’t oppose the Iraq war before it began). They can include what he has said in the past. They can be ready to press him if something he says reveals he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Is that enough? I doubt it. It’s going to take some creative planning to meet the challenge the presumptive Republican presidential nominee presents.

  1. Assuming we even get normal coverage, and not “missing airplane” sensationalism. The media is going to be unusually challenged even when following best practices.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net