I was walking past my department's glass-walled media lab the other day when I saw on a CNN newscast, filling the full width of one of the sports-bar-sized flat-screen televisions, a tweet by the president calling Sen. Bob Corker, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "incompetent."
Based on the standards of the last century of American politics, a president calling a senator incompetent is certainly out of the ordinary and, in the estimation of most reasonable people, highly inappropriate. I immediately wondered, though, if in 2017, the tweet was actually newsworthy.
As a journalism professor, I started running through the traditional news values. The tweet was timely and proximate, clearly, and, coming from the president, it had prominence. That's not enough, though, because if it were, everything the president tweeted would be newsworthy. And clearly the tweet included conflict, but, again, nearly every tweet from the president would satisfy all four of those news values.
That left me with the key fifth news value: impact. Did Trump's tweet have an effect on the lives of CNN's viewers? I thought: yes, but not due to the content of the tweet, which in actuality would have zero impact on anyone outside of the Corker household (and, arguably, not even in the Corker household, as the senator has already said he's not running for re-election, so he probably doesn't care what the president thinks of his abilities).
No, the tweet had an impact because it is a go-to move of the president to use spectacle to distract the public's focus from real issues. So the act of reporting on the tweet has the effect desired by the president, causing the impact that makes the tweet newsworthy. Not ideal.
Which left me wondering if journalists need to adjust their calculations as to what is newsworthy coming from the president. I settled on the following rule: Cover the president's words -- regardless of their method of delivery -- if they indicate action or policy. If they don't, let the words go, otherwise the journalists are only doing the president's work.
But wait. Isn't it the job of journalists as the fourth estate to inform Americans so they can better do their job as citizens in a democracy? And wouldn't knowing about the character of the president be a key element of that duty?
My reply: That's so 2015.
Seriously, is there a single person left in the United States who doesn't know who Donald Trump is? Some people like Trump for who he is, other don't but voted for him anyway (and will continue to support him as long as there is an R next to his name), and the rest hate him and won't support him. Aren't these dynamics kind of locked in?
What is there new to report about Trump's character? He started his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, he cruelly mocked a disabled reporter, he turned the Republican debates into junior high school name-calling contests -- and boasted about the size of his penis, he made a series of statements that ranged from gender and racially insensitive to sexist and racist, multiple women came forward to say Trump had sexually harassed them, and a tape emerged in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. And he still won the election.
There is nothing else to add on Trump's character. There is nothing a journalist can report that would change the equation.
So why do his bidding? Why let him seize the news cycle with his offensive or inappropriate tweets? Again, where is the news value? Where is the impact?
That's why I think the focus should be on action and policy. If Trump tweets that he is signing an executive order preventing federal employees from staying in any hotel not owned by Trump? Report it. That's action and policy. (Admit it: For a second, you thought this was a real thing.) The substance of the healthcare and tax reform bills he supports in Congress? Action and policy. His executive orders on immigration? Action and policy. The damaging environmental policy changes adopted by his Environmental Protection Agency and other entities? Action and policy. His education secretary's decision to remove protections for women sexually assaulted on college campuses? Action and policy.
Journalists should cover all of these stories, as they impact the lives of their readers and viewers. These are the real news stories. These are the stories in which journalists play the role of the fourth estate.
But if Trump tweets that that Corker is incompetent, or that a congresswoman lied about the insensitive thing Trump said to the mother of a marine killed in combat, or that Trump got a standing ovation from GOP senators? There is no action or policy there. Do they call into question Trump's character? Of course. But, again, who doesn't know his character at this point? Where is the impact?
What about when the president sticks up for white supremacists after Charlottesville and calls them good people? Was the statement disgusting? Of course. Is it news that the president has a soft spot for white nationalists? That ship sailed when he hired one to run his campaign and later made him his chief advisor in the White House.
Put another way, while Trump is dominating news coverage cozying up to Nazis, he is taking actual actions that will harm people's lives. Of course it affects us all that the president would make such statements about the white supremacists in Charlottesville, but there is nothing new to them. We know this about the president. There is no impact.
Those opposing Trump have offered the message that Americans should be vigilant about not letting Trump's behavior be accepted as "normal." There is merit to this argument. One would hope that whoever the next president is, some basic civility, respect and humility will return to the White House.
But like it or not, the new normal, at least until January 2021, is that the president is someone who will regularly say offensive things. Journalists can report these things all they want, but it won't change the behavior of the president or the opinions currently held by Americans. Instead, journalists who let Trump decide what the news will be that day become part of his public relations team, enabling him to deflect attention from his actual actions.
The new normal just may be that in 2017, for journalists to play their role as the fourth estate, they have to ignore the president's outrageous comments and focus on his actions and policy proposals. This will allow the attention of citizens to remain where it needs to be: How the president's actions will impact their lives.
How can I be so cavalier about the president’s offensive statements? Easy, I’m cheating. If journalists don’t cover these tweets, I know that they will still get out to the public. How? We have political comedians to take Trump to task for his offensive statements. Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher and the others are better equipped to handle these tweets. Let the journalists focus on the action and policy.