Donald Trump once famously bragged that he could shoot someone on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters.
What he didn’t mention was how quickly the news media would pretend like it never even happened.
Instead, we’d focus on the latest juicy tidbits of who was in and who was out among the Mar-a-Lago crowd. We’d write features about how his old crew had migrated to South Florida with him and how the state itself had become “Trump-ified” in his image. And we’d scramble over each other for “scoops,” such as who is about to endorse him, or when and where his next rally would be, with the hope of winning an invitation aboard his private jetliner.
How do I know this?
Because we’re doing it right now. Donald Trump is the only president who used the threat of violence and then actual violence in an attempt to remain in power — the very definition of a coup. It was the singular unique act of his tenure, truly historic. In 232 years of elections, no other president had done anything remotely close to what Trump did.
Failing to mention Jan. 6 in a story about Trump is akin to writing about Neil Armstrong without mentioning the moon landing or about Jeffrey Dahmer without bringing up cannibalism.
Yet, somehow, this key bit of context almost never makes it into news coverage of Trump’s 2024 campaign. Instead, he is treated like any other candidate — with the focus on things like how he will fend off Ron DeSantis, what nickname he’ll come up with for Nikki Haley, and what strategy he’ll use to win back suburban women voters. We’re already seeing the puff profiles about his campaign staff that make those stories possible.
It all raises an intriguing question. What level of depravity would Trump have to engage in before news outlets regularly mentioned it in coverage? Serial killing? Child molestation? Both? Or would we, even then, ignore that conduct to get an inner circle aide to return a phone call?
The answer could be critical to the future of American democracy. While he was still in office, Trump spoke regularly about deserving a third term because the investigation into his 2016 campaign’s ties to Russia had ruined so much of his first. With his handling of COVID driving down his approval numbers in 2020, he actually floated the idea of postponing the November election when polls suggested he would lose.
If he were to regain the White House, on what basis does anyone believe that he would ever willingly leave?
Quid Pro Quote
Do you want a ride on Trump’s shiny, newly refurbished airplane to cover one of his campaign events? Or an invite to a news conference at one of his pre-rally photo opportunities with his “special” guests? How about an actual interview at his Mar-a-Lago country club?
Well, then you’d better be careful about what you write and say about Jan. 6, 2021, and Trump’s role in it. Stating the simple truth of that day in plain language must be avoided. Instead, craft a tortured sentence or two, preferably in the passive voice, that completely decouples Trump’s repeated lies about a “stolen” election that began in the wee hours of election night, continuing right through his vitriolic Jan. 6 rally, and the subsequent bloody assault on police officers that took place just up the street at the Capitol.
It is astonishing, reading much of the coverage about him these days — not just in the right-wing media echo chamber, but from normal, mainstream news outlets. Often, there is no reference to Jan. 6 at all. When it is mentioned, it’s typically described as if his supporters just spontaneously turned up at the Capitol on that particular day and became a bit unruly, having nothing to do with Trump whatsoever.
How we got to a point where a man who attempted an actual coup is treated like any other candidate for office cannot really be fathomed without an understanding of how political journalism has come to be practiced.
Reporters who cover entertainment — sports, say, or movies — have long understood that their livelihoods depend on their subjects liking them. Not respecting them as professionals who have jobs to do, but actually liking them. Because celebrities can choose to speak to you, and make your career a success, or can freeze you out, making your job damned-near impossible. Exclusive interviews and quotes and photos are gold in this world. Getting them means promotions and higher-paying jobs with more glamorous outlets.
So it is, nowadays, in political journalism as well. Not government journalism, which often requires expertise in a particular subject area — banking or health care, for example — but which at the very least involves knowing the rules and processes of the governmental body in question. Political journalism today, in contrast, is really only about who is winning and, perhaps more important, who is likely to win.
Subject area expertise is almost nonexistent. Instead, it’s all about how Candidate X will message voters better than Candidate Y. Covering this is obviously easier if you have good connections with “senior advisers” and “top strategists” to both X and Y, so you can file reports based on “people familiar with” X and Y’s “thinking.”
It is no coincidence that this type of reporting has come to be called “horse race” journalism. Except unlike in sports where the results — who wins, who loses, who will get high-round draft picks to start rebuilding next year — in the end carry no real consequence, the failure of political journalism can be catastrophic.
‘Scoops’ In The Age Of Trump
A big piece of the problem is the value my industry places on “scoops,” that is, having a story before anyone else.
In three and a half decades in this business, I’ve never understood this obsession. So what if you get details of a campaign announcement the day before everyone else? How has that improved your readers’ ability to understand this world?
I’ve often seen SCOOPs in Twitter posts by reporters, with a news release from a candidate containing identical information coming literally minutes later.
The only “scoops” that constitute a public service are stories that would not have been known to the public at all without your having written them. Frankly, those are the only scoops we reporters should ever worry about getting.
I was lucky enough to have spent my formative years as a journalist in Florida, where the public records laws were among the strongest in the country. If a city council member or a county commissioner or, later, a state legislator or governor’s appointee refused to provide me information about public business, fine. I would find out some other way, usually through official documents.
It often took longer than I would have liked, but in every instance, the story was something that otherwise would never have seen the light of day.
Those sorts of articles take time, though. Days or even weeks. Meanwhile, the incentive structure in political journalism rewards a “scoop” that drives traffic not merely today, but right this minute. And that means having sources in various campaigns willing to tell you things first. And it means having a tacit agreement that you won’t make them look bad.
In days past, of course, most political journalism was also bad political journalism. It wasn’t ideal, but it did not represent a threat to the republic. Having various outlets handle Mitt Romney or John Kerry or John McCain or Barack Obama with kid gloves for self-serving reasons didn’t really hurt American political discourse because all of those people shared basic American values about fair play and the rule of law and the sanctity of elections.
None of them, for instance, would have dreamed of trying to overturn an election defeat.
Today, we’re in a different place. Trump has shown very plainly that he does not believe in any of those things we long assumed were in the DNA of any serious candidate for major office.
Trump vs. Democracy, Round 2
Despite all this, journalists continue to invent all manner of justifications about working to maintain access to Trump, even if it requires soft-pedaling his actions in his final two months in the White House.
We need to have people close to Trump who will talk to us, because like it or not, he is a major player in American politics and we don’t want to be shut out.
We will play good cop-bad cop to get information, with some of our team sucking up to Trump and others taking it right to him, so we get all the coverage, not just some of it.
We are not betraying our audience by ignoring Jan. 6; rather, by cozying up to his people we are getting leaks about his plans and his thinking that our audience needs to know.
And, finally and least convincingly: People already know all about what he did, and, besides, it’s not our job to remind them.
What these rationales have in common is the failure to view Trump’s behavior as having crossed not just a red line in a rule-of-law democracy, but a barb-wire-fenced no-mans-land with a neon sign above it flashing: “Thou shalt not pass.”
We’re not talking about marginal tax rates here, or what an appropriate social safety net should look like. We’re talking about the very foundations of our constitutional republic. American journalism, after all, is not a thing separate and apart from American democracy. The former does not exist without the latter.
As a young reporter in upstate New York, I was taught that if a city council or a school board or a judge tried to close a hearing to the public, it was my job to stand up and object and ask for a delay until our lawyer could arrive. News outlets sue elected officials all the time for the release of public documents. In other words, we are not merely stenographers of our democracy, but active participants.
We treat political corruption as unequivocally bad, as we do murder and other violent crimes. We don’t waste time quoting experts telling us that bribery and homicide are wrong. We proceed from the premise that they are. Yet when it comes to Trump, we impose the “neutral observer” standard to an actual attempt to end our democracy?
I sometimes wonder if my colleagues have already forgotten that Wednesday afternoon and evening.
Stop for a moment and think: What if Donald Trump had succeeded that day? What if, instead of Mike Pence, the vice president had been someone with the character of Mark Meadows or Scott Perry and they’d gone along with Trump’s demands?
What should we have called Trump, had he managed to remain in office despite losing the election by 7 million votes? How should we have described the government we would have had at that point? Because it sure as hell would not have been a democracy anymore.
That it did not happen does not mean it could not have happened, or that it cannot.
Collectively, I think, America has already forgotten that — and no small thanks to my profession.
The Insurrection Was Televised
Constantly reminding our audience of what Trump did, by the way, is not “partisan” or taking sides. To the contrary. Not constantly reminding our audience is taking sides. Trump’s side.
Nor is it a matter of interpretation. This is not a he-said, she-said thing.
If you personally witness that shooting on Fifth Avenue, you don’t have to say that so-and-so is accused of shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, or that so-and-so allegedly shot someone.
We use the “accused” and “alleged” qualifiers when we write police stories because we are relying on law enforcement officials to describe events. That does not apply when we personally observe something.
The shooting happened. You saw it happen.
Just so, there is no need to water down descriptions of what Trump did leading up to and on Jan. 6, 2021. He did it in plain sight, on live television, on social media. Every single day, for two full months.
His lying about the election results (he’d already been seeding this storyline for months, by the way, with claims that the only way he could lose was if Democrats cheated) began just hours after polls closed, when he claimed that he already had won and demanded a stop to all ballot counting.
His lawyers followed with a series of lawsuits alleging fraud in key states. Not a single one of them cited evidence to back up any of those claims, and he lost every one.
Then the Electoral College voted on Dec. 14, and that should have been the end of it. Of course, it wasn’t, and Trump then shifted his focus to stealing a second term through fraudulent “alternative” electors from the various states that his vice president would be able to cite during the congressional certification.
But Pence refused to go along with that illegal, unconstitutional scheme. So, on Dec. 19, Trump called his followers to Washington on the morning of that ceremony, and his plan morphed into a literal coup attempt.
No, Trump did not call out the military to keep himself in power, but it’s important to remember why he did not do this. Seven months earlier, during a protest outside the White House, Trump had ordered a public square cleared so he could walk to a photo op outside a church. Accompanying him were Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chair Mark Milley. Both soon afterward publicly apologized for their presence, and they and other top military leaders made clear that they had zero role in presidential elections.
Trump did not execute a Third World-style military coup because his military leaders had pre-empted him by publicly stating that they would refuse to take part. Trump aide Peter Navarro to this day continues to vilify them for taking this stand.
But “coup” — in Trump’s case, technically an “autogolpe,” or self-coup — is not defined by the participation of the military. It is defined by violence or the threat of violence.
And starting with that Dec. 19 tweet — “Be there. Will be wild.” — the threat of violence was ever-present. It was there when he opened the French doors to the Oval Office so Pence could hear his followers at a protest a few blocks away the night of Jan. 5. It was there the following morning, when he told aides that he didn’t care if some of his supporters were armed, that he wanted them allowed into his rally anyway, where he would urge them to march on the Capitol, with himself leading the way. And it was there at 2:24 p.m. on Jan. 6, when he tweeted that Pence lacked the “courage” to go along with his plot, which sent his mob into a boiling rage. His followers, having already breached the Capitol, swarmed the entrances minutes after that post.
A Coup By Any Other Name
All of which makes the use of that word, “coup,” critically important.
While many outlets did use it during the Jan. 6 hearings last summer, with the evidence of Trump’s behavior getting plenty of airtime, you almost never see it now that Trump is actively seeking the White House again.
It would be one thing, perhaps, if Trump had apologized for his actions leading up to that day, for all the lying he had done about the election and riling up his followers to the point where they were beating police officers with flagpoles bearing the United States ensign.
But he hasn’t. To the contrary, he has continued the election lying, and recently has been lionizing those who wound up in jail for their actions that day as “patriots” and “political prisoners.” He has lent his name to a “J6 Choir” of accused domestic terrorists, and publicly honored them at a recent rally.
In fact, 17 of the 20 still behind bars in Washington have been charged with assaulting police officers. The remaining three are charged with other serious crimes related to Jan. 6.
Despite this, Trump is almost always covered as if he were any other “normal” candidate for office. The entirety of his actions from Nov. 4, 2020, through Jan. 6, 2021, are now wrapped up in a cute shorthand about the legal peril out there related to that day, and how it could affect his dream of returning to the Oval Office.
We’ve seen this movie before, obviously, in the way the news media collectively covered Trump’s White House. We came up with euphemisms like “unpredictable” and “shambolic.” The term of art for Trump himself was “mercurial.” Just as coverage of his 2016 campaign, once he became the nominee, tended to normalize his various abnormal pronouncements, so did his White House coverage normalize his behavior.
Imagine for a moment that the mayor of your town owned a restaurant a few blocks from City Hall and that anyone who needed a building permit or a zoning variance was expected to frequent it. That mayor would be in jail, right? Well, that’s exactly what Trump did with the White House. But instead of making this unprecedented, Third World-level corruption a sustained focus of coverage, reporters used Trump’s Washington hotel as a place to hit up administration sources who’d had a drink or three for those all-important SCOOPs.
Ironically, from a practical standpoint, Trump needs the news media right now a whole lot more than the news media need Trump.
If every single story about Trump in every single news outlet mentioned his role in Jan. 6 — as well it should, for the sake of accuracy and thoroughness ― do people think his campaign would shut us all out? Of course not. It just means that his people would not be able to use as a criterion the willingness of a reporter to hide important facts from the audience when doling out access.
Democracy Hanging In The Balance
In his first run for president, Trump was treated as an entertaining joke. Someone who would make those boring summer months before primary voting started more tolerable. Print outlets and television appreciated the enormous audience that reflexively responded to Trump content, even if it was to read and watch with the sole purpose of being angry. Hence the camera shots of an empty stage with a chyron promising that Trump would soon appear.
Yes, there were plenty of stories about his past in New York and Atlantic City that made it obvious that the genius businessman he played on television was just that — a character he played on television. There was even a fair amount of analysis of his statements through the years that warned of his authoritarian bent. Overall, though, he was seen as a harmless buffoon. And that more or less set the tone for the coverage of his White House.
Sure, he was unusual by the standards of all his predecessors, or most elected officials, or, for that matter, most adult human beings — but he made for great copy and for great ratings! As CBS’s Les Moonves put it in 2016 about Trump’s campaign: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Despite this prologue, I had honestly believed that Jan. 6 would end that attitude forever, at least when it came to Trump.
One prominent reporter trapped in the Capitol that day literally pleaded for help. Others who had for the previous six years covered Trump with all the aforementioned euphemisms suddenly accepted the gravity of what was going on and accurately put the blame on the one person who had caused it. All of the ironic, above-it-all detachment, the nothing-can-faze-me tone was gone as thousands in Trump’s mob attacked hundreds of police officers, with democracy hanging in the balance.
I had thought, going forward, that the description of Trump as an autocrat who had betrayed the Constitution would be hung around his neck in every story that mentioned him.
I was obviously naïve.
Starting with his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando just weeks after his failed coup attempt, where Trump all but announced his campaign to retake the presidency in 2024, reporters began their efforts to ingratiate themselves with him and his staff.
And by reporters, I’m not just talking about the “journalists” in the Trump Apology Corps — that is, those organizations that exist entirely in the Trump disinformation bubble, where, for example, the domestic terrorists who violently attacked police, leading to the death of five of them and injuries to another 140, are instead portrayed as the victims of that day.
Actual reporters for genuine news outlets, many of whom I know and like and respect, who have somehow developed the same relationships with Trump and his inner circle as they would with any other candidate and treat him as such in their coverage.
And in so doing, they are normalizing Trump’s coup attempt as an acceptable political tactic. After all, if news media professionals, who follow this stuff in detail day in and day out, don’t treat Jan. 6 as particularly significant, why should ordinary Americans who pay minimal attention to politics?
Whitewashing Jan. 6 Away
Republican consultant Sarah Longwell recently described focus groups that found, initially, that even Trump-supporting voters were on Ukraine’s side after Russian dictator Vladimir Putin invaded in early 2022. Then right-wing media began offering a steady diet of anti-Ukraine “news.” Volodymyr Zelenskyy was corrupt. Billions of dollars of American aid were being squandered. Russia actually has a right to that land.
Month after month it continued, until a year later, support for Ukraine among Trump’s followers has fallen dramatically.
Mass media matters. What journalists say, and just as important, what we don’t say, shapes public opinion. And the consensus practice of not mentioning what Trump did leading up to and on Jan. 6 — how it was without precedent in the nation’s history, and how his scheme would have literally ended our democracy — is whitewashing that day away.
In the days and weeks immediately afterward, an overwhelming majority of Americans understood that the former president had incited it, for the purpose of staying in the White House. Two years of Trump lies and lukewarm media pushback later, that percentage is far lower, and an increasing number of Republicans now believe Trump was not responsible for his own coup attempt.
How much deeper into the looking glass are we going to fall if journalists fail to provide the most basic of context to our audience?
I’m not suggesting that we not ask for interviews, that we not try to travel with his campaign. We absolutely should be making those requests, as we do for other candidates.
But we absolutely should not make that request, or accept an invite, with even the hint of an implicit agreement to soft-pedal or, worse still, to not mention Trump’s post-election words and deeds. You would never have agreed to interview Charles Manson on the condition that you not mention his murders. Well, what Charles Manson and his groupies did to Sharon Tate and her friends is what Donald Trump tried to do to our democracy.
In an age when most journalism is produced and consumed online, with no physical “column inch” limit like with print, there is simply zero excuse not to include just a sentence or two of context about Trump’s Jan. 6 conduct in every news account about him. The relative clause “who attempted a coup to remain in power” adds precisely eight words to a story.
In the end, if American voters decide that they would prefer an autocracy to a representative democracy, that is their prerogative, to end this 236-year-old experiment. But they should do so with their eyes wide open. And it is our job as journalists to make sure they have the necessary information to make an informed choice.