Legendary reporter Dan Rather took to Facebook tonight to share his thoughts on Donald Trump’s penchant for tweeting out lies and threats whenever it tickles his fancy. He poses a very interesting question – are Trump’s tweets a smokescreen, a bone tossed to the jackals in the 24-hour news cycle that detracts attention from the real events playing out behind the scenes?
Coverage today would surely have focused on Trump’s early morning declaration that protesters who torch the flag should be jailed or stripped of their citizenship. It’s an incredibly incendiary remark that rightfully stirred the public into a fury. But does he mean it? Rather wants to know:
Here’s a question that the press has never had to deal with before: how do you deal with a president-elect, and eventually a president, who regularly Tweets untrue or intimidating statements?
By the nature of the office, when a president says something it’s usually news. Words can move markets, start wars, shift the direction of major domestic and foreign policy. And that’s why most presidents are constrained and careful with their public statements.
Not so Donald Trump. It’s one of the things his supporters love about him and his critics despise. And anyone who thought Trump was going to change after the election, well, as the saying goes, the past seems to be prologue.
But within the press there is a brewing discussion about what these Tweets mean and how to handle them. Because whether Trump is Tweeting about the musical Hamilton, Saturday Night Live, erroneously saying he won the popular vote, changing the Constitution on flag burning (today’s latest), these statements inevitably overwhelm the news cycle. But in the meantime, there are a lot of other important stories that aren’t getting enough attention – like investigations into Trump’s potential conflicts of interest from his business dealings or some of the more extreme positions taken by his cabinet choices.
Some in the press, and comments I have read on this page, have suggested that Trump’s use of Twitter is a master stroke to deflect attention from more potentially damaging stories. Others have suggested that the more the media plays up the Tweets, the more Trump’s base (which thinks the press is biasedt to begin with) gets riled up and the more Trump’s message dominates the public discussion. I can see the merits of all of these points.
On the other hand, the president of the United States Tweeting out a lie, threatening people and institutions, betraying an obsession with conspiracy theories – that is all news too. And it’s important that the press doesn’t normalize it.
On this page I am going to try to walk a balance between bringing attention to Tweets when I think they are serious enough to merit, but not allow my postings to be too distracted from other important news. It will be a process to figure it out and I would welcome your thoughts and continued engagement as we go through this.
In times of like this I sometimes try to imagine what my journalistic hero Edward R. Murrow would do. in this case, I can imagine him shaking his head and shrugging in disbelief. “Son, I saw a lot in my time, but I never saw anything like this. Good luck, but I fear you’re on your own.”
A very good question we all must come to grips with if we are going to survive the next four years. Trump’s Twitter rantings are becoming increasingly disturbing in their content and coming at strategically useful timings. He’s getting the best of both worlds right now, and the media appears to be playing right into his tiny hands.