How Should The Media Cover Donald Trump?
Donald Trump has earned headlines — and, in some circles, ire — for incendiary comments throughout his presidential campaign. Recently, Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. and a database to keep track of them — comments that other candidates in the GOP have denounced as intolerant and wrongheaded.
But some media commentators and news organizations have taken it a step further, stating that the man himself is racist and that his policies are fueled by racism.
Trump responded to these statements on CNN earlier this week, when interviewed by Don Lemon: "I am the least racist person that you have ever met. I am the least racist person," Trump said at the time.
Within media organizations, the decision of how to cover Trump has prompted significant discussion and debate — and, ultimately, several different conclusions.
To offer a window into these conversations, NPR's Michel Martin spoke with editors and decision-makers from legacy institutions and digital media: Susan Glasser of Politico, Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post and NPR's own news chief, Michael Oreskes.
Listen to an extended cut of the conversation below.
Susan Glasser, editor of Politico
"I think our role is to play referee, is to provide independent, critical thinking — but not critical news reporting on this. We have an opinion section," Glasser says. "Everybody has an opinion about Donald Trump. So our role isn't to do that. It's to provide original reporting."
She puts it simply: "If you want to call him a racist, you can call him a racist. But it's not our job to inform your use of adjectives."
Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief of The Huffington Post
"We have a certain obligation," Grim says. "When we see a strain of hate- and fear-mongering rising to a certain level, the press does have an obligation to try to call that out and point out what it is that's happening."
Grim adds: "The idea that you would block all Muslims — including American citizens — from coming into the United States is not just absurd, it's not just unconstitutional. It's evil, and it's fascist. And it's OK to go ahead and say that, and in fact, media organizations ought to."
Michael Oreskes, senior vice president of news and editorial director of NPR
"I think our rules are really quite clear — and what they're based on is actually our bond with our audience, not the relationship to the candidates. I don't actually worry too much about fairness to Donald Trump, but I do worry a lot about the tone of our journalism," Oreskes says.
"Our job is to be open to as many different kinds of listeners and readers as we possibly can reach, and the more you sound like you're calling someone a name, the less people will listen to you."
The bottom line, Oreskes says: "Our moral role in society is to provide as much information to as many people as is possible."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We want to dig in now on the question of Donald Trump. As you've no doubt heard, he's called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States and a database to keep track of them - comments that other candidates in his own party have denounced as intolerant and wrongheaded. But some media commentators and news organizations have taken it a step further, stating that the man himself is racist and that his policies are fueled by racism. We wanted to take a closer look at the decisions media organizations are making in the covering Trump, so we called Susan Glasser editor of POLITICO, which is, as the name implies, dedicated to covering politics. Welcome. Thanks for coming.
SUSAN GLASSER: Thanks so much for having me.
MARTIN: Ryan Grim is also with us. He's the Washington bureau chief of The Huffington Post, an online news organization. Ryan, thanks so much for joining us, as well.
RYAN GRIM: It's good to be here.
MARTIN: And also with us, NPR's own editorial director Michael Oreskes. He's also senior vice president of news. Michael, thank you for walking down the hall.
MICHAEL ORESKES, BYLINE: Michel, it's great that I could find you here.
MARTIN: That's right. So, Susan, let me start with you because POLITICO has a foot in the digital media world and in the print world. And you yourself have had a long tenure in so-called legacy media organizations, so I wanted to ask what's your direction to your staff on this?
GLASSER: Well, look, I think our role is to provide independent critical thinking, but not critical news reporting of this.
MARTIN: But what does that mean? You describe the behavior, but don't characterize it? What does that mean?
GLASSER: Well, I don't think our job is name-calling. I do think that telling it like it is as our role. And I don't think that there's anything that's going to be too nuanced about covering Donald Trump because he's not running a very nuanced campaign. If you want to call him a racist, you can call him a racist, but it's not our job to inform your use of adjectives.
MARTIN: Now, OK, so, Ryan, let me ask you. Arianna Huffington posted an attention-getting note last week in Huffington Post. Initially, the organization covered him in politics, and then he was moved to entertainment. And then Arianna Huffington posted a very strongly worded note saying that he's moving back to the main news site, and let me just read what she said.
(Reading) Now that Trump, aided by the media, has doubled down on the cruelty and know-nothingness that defined his campaign's early days, the can-you-believe-he-said-that novelty has curdled and congealed into something repellant and threatening, laying bare a disturbing aspect of American politics.
And saying that (reading) we believe the way we cover the campaign should reflect this shift.
So I said strongly worded from her, but what does that mean for your reporters?
GRIM: Well, you know, it means that if they want to call a spade a spade, that they certainly can. You know, it's almost a cliche for media organizations to say that what they do is that they connect the dots, and they help readers or listeners make sense of the world. To me, though, it's not fair to say that that's true in every case, except when it comes to racism. When it comes to racism, we're just going to find the dots, put the dots out there, and you can go ahead and make sense of them on your own.
MARTIN: Mike Oreskes, what's your direction to your staff on this?
ORESKES: The great thing - the great thing about guarantee of an independent press is we can be independent from each other. And I don't think every journalism organization has to have the same rules, but I think our rules are really quite clear. And what they're based on is actually our bond with the audience. The more intense and the more angry and the more name-calling politics become, I think the more careful we have to be to not sound the same. So even if you believe, as I take it Ben Smith at BuzzFeed believes, that Donald Trump is a mendacious liar, even if all the facts could somehow be garnered to defend that, I still think that's a characterization that's for the audience to decide.
MARTIN: Because why?
ORESKES: Because our job is to be open to as many different kinds of listeners and readers as we possibly can reach. And the more you sound like you're calling someone a name, the less people will listen to you.
MARTIN: So you're saying this is tactical, not moral?
ORESKES: No, I think it's moral in the sense - or at least a lot more than just a tactic. It's about my relationship to the audiences. I want everybody to be listening to us.
MARTIN: That sounds technical, not moral.
ORESKES: Well, maybe. I'll take that.
MARTIN: That sounds tactical to me. Ryan is suggesting that that morally compromises you when you don't call it what he believes it is - that that somehow diminishes your moral authority. And you just don't agree.
ORESKES: Yeah, and I actually - I disagree. I believe that - in fact, our moral role in society is to provide as much information as many people as is possible.
MARTIN: To that end, Susan Glasser, I wanted to go back to something that you said earlier about the sense of what most people believe. Why is this so hard for people? Is it because we really don't agree on what racism is or because we really don't agree on what's outside the boundaries of appropriate public discourse?
GLASSER: Well, look, I think actually the public polls suggest that that's not the case. And you should remember that when you see a poll that says that 30 or 36 percent nationally support Donald Trump, that's 36 percent of a potential Republican primary electorate, which is by no means a majority, even of a minority party in this country. So that's very important.
MARTIN: Ryan, I'm going to do this 'cause there has been the suggestion by some - I would say - progressives that there be sort of a media fast around Donald Trump because his campaign is essentially fueled by attention. What do you think about that?
GRIM: I think that he's tapping into something that does exist out there. And he would be getting some of that support whether or not the media was giving him all this free air time or not, but these are not exactly normal times. The kind of Tea Party that was unleashed in 2010 has now kind of gotten out of the control of the GOP establishment, and Donald Trump is running away with it. And so in extraordinary times like this, it is, I think, the obligation of a free media to speak out.
MARTIN: But particularly, though, given that the Huffington Post leans progressive, to those who argue that you empower him by speaking his language, you say no.
GRIM: Well, I mean, we moved him into our entertainment section to try to make the point that this is not a serious person. Us moving him from one vertical to another, stunningly, you know, did not prevent his rise. Had the entire media landscape done the exact same thing, perhaps we wouldn't be where we are today with a major party leading candidate who has already called Mexicans rapists saying that Muslims should be blocked from coming into the country. Where we go from here isn't clear.
ORESKES: One misconception, I think, needs to be taken on is all of this is a sign of the weakness of the media, not the strength of the media. The media didn't create the Trump phenomenon, and the media won't stop the Trump phenomenon.
MARTIN: Because - why do you say that - it's about the weakness of the media, not the strength?
ORESKES: The weakness of the media - you see this all across the board - that the pressure on media to speak out more, to be more noticeable, to be louder, to put editorials on the front page - it's not a sign of the strength and commitment of the media. It's a sign of how hard it has become to get traction.
GLASSER: You know, I think it's a very important point that Michael's raking (ph). We are looking at a political environment in 2016 where we're dealing with a very fragmented society. And that, of course, is undermining faith in all institutions, including media institutions, as well as the two political parties. As Ryan correctly pointed out, this is a major assault on the legitimacy, even, of the Republican Party establishment. The death of authority means that if people think that Donald Trump is entertaining, and he has a message to sell, he's going to get his message out in many, many different avenues. And there's only so much control that we have, which why I revert to - what is our role - our protected role - in society under the First Amendment? It's to get out there. It's to present the facts as aggressively and honestly and independently as possible.
MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now, so thank you all so much for participating. Susan Glasser is editor of POLITICO. Ryan Grim is Washington bureau chief of the Huffington Post. And NPR's own editorial director Michael Oreskes - senior vice president of news. They were all here with us in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you all so much for being here.
GLASSER: Thank you.
ORESKES: Thanks for having me.
GRIM: A pleasure.
MARTIN: There is actually much more to this conversation, and you can find the full interview with our guests at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.