Since it would appear that President-elect Donald Trump is not going to give up using his Twitter account ― which is probably the one good thing the social media company’s share value has going for it ― it would seem that journalists have a new problem: figuring a way to keep Trump’s insomniac utterances from making a complete hash of their work.
That was never more apparent than it was on Tuesday, after Trump joined a pile-on that was already in progress, tweeting out (over the course of two missives): “With all that Congress has to work on, do they really have to make the weakening of the Independent Ethics Watchdog, as unfair as it / …….may be, their number one act and priority. Focus on tax reform, healthcare and so many other things of far greater importance!”
The story here is that on Monday night, news broke that House Republicans were, as a part of the rules-voting with which every new Congress begins its life on this earth, eyeing significant changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics. As The Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller reported, this included “removing the entity’s independence, barring it from investigating anonymous complaints and even changing the group’s name.” It would also place the ethics office “under the ‘oversight’ of the lenient Ethics Committee,” at which point it would be no longer allowed to “release information to the public” or “directly contact law enforcement without approval.”
This touched off a public hue and cry that manifested sufficient pressure to convince House Republicans to abandon this plan. Trump’s Twitter account joined this outpouring of anger very late. But in the rush to cover what Trump’s Twitter account did, some of the basic facts got badly jumbled, leading many news organizations ― as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent documents here ― to credit Trump with providing the pressure.
It was only in the aftermath that people started noticing that Trump didn’t actually come out against the proposed changes. He was merely critical of the timing. (Perhaps because any focus on government ethics in general currently redounds to his detriment?) At any rate, reporters belatedly sought clarification (Trump spokesman Sean Spicer eventually confirmed that the issue was about timing), and the story of how Trump’s mighty tweets caused a reversal of this plan had to be gently walked back.
Basically, everyone missed a chance to write a story about how no one in the Trump transition team seems to know how Congress works. (Congress votes on its rules at the outset of its existence, so there isn’t some better “timing” to be had.)
But it’s going to be a long four years for everybody if the media doesn’t figure out the proper way to handle the fact that the president of the United States responds to visual stimulus by impulsively firing off thought-bursts on Twitter. On this subject, Sargent has a lot to say, specifically about writing headlines, so that one doesn’t leave the impression that Trump came out in support of things that he didn’t.
But I’ve a more comprehensive solution: Reporters should not cover Trump’s tweets as authentic events.
Back when Washington Post reporter David Weigel was writing for the Washington Independent, he faced a similar conundrum with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who by the end of 2009 had taken to using Facebook as her communications medium of choice. As Weigel pointed out in a piece titled, “Why I Don’t Write About Sarah Palin’s Facebook Posts,” it was a key ingredient in a rather shrewd media strategy:
The problem is that Palin has put the political press in a submissive position, one in which the only information it prints about her comes from prepared statements or from Q&As with friendly interviewers. This isn’t something most politicians get away with, or would be allowed to get away with. But Palin has leveraged her celebrity — her ability to get ratings, the ardor of her fans and the bitterness of her critics — to win a truly unique relationship with the press. She is allowed to shape the public debate without actually engaging in it.
At the time, Palin was engaged in a public row with former Vice President Al Gore over climate change ― and an asymmetric one at that. As Weigel noted:
While Gore submitted to an interview, on camera, Palin lent her name to a Facebook post. I say “lent her name” because there is really no way of telling if Palin wrote the post — that’s probably the biggest problem with the way Palin is using the media here, and the reason I choose not to engage with this stuff.
Now, it was probably much easier to ignore Palin’s Facebook posts than it is to ignore Trump’s tweets. Palin, obviously, was no longer a political officeholder at the time, whereas Trump is going to be the president. Still, Weigel’s approach is instructive, because we don’t actually know, at any given point, who the actual author of Trump’s tweets are. From time to time, he dictates tweets to aides, who then polish them for consumption. At other times, his aides have revoked his Twitter privileges.
Of course, at some point Trump will gain access to “@POTUS,” the legacy Twitter account established by the Obama administration. No matter how Trump uses it, It’s going to become tempting to view tweets from that account as the real deal ― the authentic voice of the White House. You might be inclined to accord that account full faith and credit. Don’t do this! As I said back when the Obama White House first built this infernal contraption, it doesn’t produce authentic events, either:
Anyone who thinks that this new outlet is going to be a venue for the president’s unvarnished, sincere opinion needs to get his head examined. And yes, that cute little exchange between Obama and former President Bill Clinton was absolutely a tidy bit of Oval Office kayfabe. Anything that gets posted to the @POTUS account will be vetted [by White House communications staff] within an inch of its life, and anything remotely interesting will be stripped out and watered down.
We will really never know if a Trump tweet is stubbed into existence by his own hand, laundered for clarity by an assistant, penned by an aide while channeling his voice, or slow-cooked by the White House communications team. So, with that in mind, why would anyone treat anything on Trump’s Twitter account without several thousand grains of salt?
The proper thing to do, if for some reason a Trump tweet seems newsworthy, is to pick up the phone and get in touch with those who actually speak for his administration. Ask them if his outbursts are official White House policy. See if there’s any added nuance, contradictions, walk-backs or work-arounds. Note these distinctions. Track down what the authentic event actually is. Then, tell your readers about it.
A really good rule of thumb: Done the right way, any story that begins with Trump tweeting need never actually link back to the tweet itself, because you’ll have reported everything out with official sources and can bring in an official statement.
In the end, you’ll produce something that is fair to everyone involved and you won’t have to disentangle that hasty headline, constructed in the fog of social media. As an added bonus: You’ll be sending a message to the incoming administration that you’re not going to be its Twitter stenographer.
Guys. It’s Twitter. It’s not really real. It’s just a piece of social media ephemera. Part of reckoning with a future in which a president is going to impulsively tweet is understanding that you, as a reporter, were not in the room to confirm that event. Thus, you should treat Twitter as a matter that requires confirmation. This isn’t rocket science. It’s the job. It’s the same job you perform running down a rumor, or following up on something a source ― even a trusted source! ― mentioned. The mere fact that it’s published as a tweet doesn’t change this.
The fact that a president might tweet anything at all should raise suspicions, not settle them. So, to borrow a phrase from Leah Finnegan: “Verify, then trust.” As often as is necessary.
I can already anticipate a complaint. After all, we live in a world where tweets have become currency, and those little blue check marks are treated as a de facto vouch for any Twitter user’s bona fides. If we were to take these rules for Trump, you might argue, and apply them consistently, we’d be treating the tweets of any politician, celebrity or public figure as inauthentic. We’d be treating the tweets of brands as inauthentic. We’d be treating the tweets of journalists as inauthentic! The material value of a tweet ― indeed the Twitter platform itself ― would be so diminished that it would not have any real world value at all.
Right! That’s exactly what I’m suggesting. My word, you say that as if it were a bad thing.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.