This article was written by Harvard Staff Writer Alvin Powell, and was originally published in the Harvard Gazette.
How do you cover Donald Trump?
He’s going to do a lot of speeches, and parts of his message will be provably false, reflect intolerance, and promote anti-democratic ideas. Reporters can’t simply ignore him because he is an important public figure but quoting him potentially makes them complicit in spreading falsehoods that are often sharply divisive and periodically dangerous.
Harvard media experts say that after two presidential campaigns — with a third starting — and four years in the White House, the nation’s media outlets still don’t seem to know how best to cover the former president, and the nation is poorer because of it.
“There’s still this set of norms for how journalists do things that has been taught since the founding of journalism schools, and they’re just not able to deal with a case like Trump,” said Matthew Baum, the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications at the Harvard Kennedy School. “They’ve just fallen down.”
If anything, Trump has signaled that he’s doubling down on his unique combination of bravado, brazenness, and selective adherence to the truth that he rode to power in 2016. Through two presidential impeachments and now two post-presidential indictments, he seems to embody the old political saw: “I don’t care what you say, just spell my name right.”
Trump has cast congressional, civil, and criminal investigations as political “witch hunts” with no substance, a framing many of his supporters accept. Indeed, instead of being chagrined, he’s taken them as opportunities to raise funds and heighten his media profile.
The impact of his legal woes on Republican primary voters was illustrated by a June 14 Quinnipiac University poll showing that, after being indicted for mishandling classified documents, he remains the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, 30 points ahead of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is in second place.
A CNN town hall last month, moderated by Kaitlan Collins, illustrated the media’s problem. The crowd, made up largely of supporters, felt more like a campaign rally than an exercise in journalism. There was a standing ovation when the former president walked on stage, hearty applause when he repeated falsehoods, and mocking laughter when Trump characterized writer E. Jean Carroll as a “whack job.” The day before the town hall a jury had found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming Carroll and awarded her $5 million in damages.
The hour provided Trump the chance to detail debunked claims of election fraud, characterize migrants seeking entry to the U.S. as former prison inmates and patients from mental institutions, and falsely insist former Vice President Mike Pence had it within his power to send the 2020 election back to the states on Jan. 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol riot.
The network was heavily criticized for providing Trump a forum to repeat statements that had been proven to be untrue. The event reportedly contributed to the ouster of CNN chair Chris Licht.
The Trump problem is at least as old as his 2016 presidential campaign, when coverage of him exceeded that of other candidates, with the effect of amplifying his message. On CNN alone, the phrases “crooked Hillary” and “lock her up” were repeated 3,000 times during the campaign, according to Thomas Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at HKS.
“Nobody watches CNN 24 hours a day, but the steady viewer was getting exposed to hundreds of those, and those things sometimes sink in and actually erode trust,” Patterson said.
Even with a different occupant in the White House, the media fixation on Trump has continued, ramping up again recently with the launch of his latest presidential bid, lawsuits in New York and Florida, and his indictments. The end result, Patterson said, is that Trump — today one among several Republican contenders — may be getting sitting-president level coverage.
“I haven’t seen a good content analysis of the last year, but I bet he’s coming close to as much coverage as the president has received,” Patterson said. “That’s really unusual. And that isn’t just about newsworthiness; it’s also about ratings.”