Commentators such as Politico’s Jack Shafer argue the media should ignore President-elect Donald Trump’s outlandish tweets – because they are outlandish and distract us from things Trump wants us to ignore. Shafer has things exactly backward.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake writes, “The job comes with the so-called bully pulpit, and what he says matters and will be the subject of debate no matter what the mainstream media does.... It doesn’t matter if he says it on Twitter or at a news conference; either way it’s going to be consumed by tens of millions of people, and the media has an important role to play when it comes to fact-checking and providing context.” I find that logic compelling and would add a few points.
First, the media can walk and chew gum at the same time. Cable TV news has 24/7 coverage. Online editions of major newspapers and of broadcast networks have virtually unlimited space. Even in print newspapers, room can be found for not only a headline of “Trump invents voter fraud,” but also “Trump’s business connections threaten to deepen the swamp.”
If one suspects Trump is trying to distract us, as opposed to getting himself distracted to an alarming degree, how much more important is it to explain, for example, that “Trump takes to Twitter to distract from secretary of state paralysis”? (But unless someone is privy to Trump’s inner thoughts, we do not know the “motive” for his tweets.) In any event, covering tweets does not negate coverage of his other missteps; it should actually underscore his difficulty in performing a job he never planned to hold.
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Second, there is no more important story than the evidence of the president-elect’s irrationality and instability. His mental and intellectual status should be of even greater concern.
Third, our allies and enemies are constantly taking the measure of our president-elect – and will for the next four years. If world leaders take into account Trump’s public pronouncements and make strategic decisions based partly on those utterances, voters should get the same information.
No one can assess at this stage whether Trump tweets strategically or compulsively, whether he understands the importance of a president’s words and whether he means what he tweets or is simply blowing off steam. Clarity may come with time. For now, his utterances on Twitter and elsewhere give critical insight into the mind-set of the least prepared man ever to win the presidency.
The media must explain to the American people who it is they elected – his shortcomings, his blind spots, his emotional state and his decision-making process. Turning a blind eye to his unfiltered outbursts would be journalistic malpractice. Worse, it would shield the public from the unpleasant reality, the consequences of their electoral decision, which they must now endure for at least four years.