Opinion

Should the media try a Trump blackout? Let’s think twice about that

Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd for singing “Happy Birthday” as he speaks during a campaign rally Tuesday at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Donald Trump acknowledges the crowd for singing “Happy Birthday” as he speaks during a campaign rally Tuesday at the Greensboro Coliseum. AP

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank thinks the media should answer Donald Trump’s ban of Post reporters (and many others) from his campaign events. Milbank’s suggestion today: A Trump media blackout.

Tempting, but no.

Milbank is quick to say that he’s not calling for a moratorium on coverage, which as he says would be “shirking our civic responsibility.” Instead, he calls for three things that would curb at least some of the free publicity he sees media giving Trump.

First, no more live, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump rallies and events. Also, no more Trump call-ins to TV shows, which Milbank says allows the candidate to plant falsehoods with little risk of follow-up.

Finally, Milbank wants “rigorous use of real-time fact-checking,” which basically means pointing out quickly what Trump gets wrong. “That’s not injecting opinion – it’s stating fact,” Milbank says.

Let’s tackle each of these.

On the rallies: Milbank singles out cable news outlets for the wall-to-wall coverage, but reporters from the Post also engage in real-time coverage of Trump rallies, tweeting out the latest from the stage. There’s a reason for that: Like it or not, what Trump says and does is news. He’s the presumptive Republican nominee for president. He campaigns like no other presidential candidate ever has, and he says things no presidential candidate should say. Those words, as my colleague Eric Frazier noted yesterday, can carry great weight. They’re newsworthy.

Yes, they also bring great ratings. Trump is a traveling circus, and his supporters (at least some of them) provide a fascinating cultural sideshow. Cable execs know this. But that circus and that sideshow also give us a glimpse of who we are as a nation. That’s newsworthy, too.

On the call-ins to TV shows: I’ve never understood the pundit revulsion to Trump doing phoners on cable shows. When did the in-person rule for interviewing go into effect? If Trump is the only one who gets to do them, then no, that’s not good. But I’m guessing that if Hillary Clinton wants to do a call-in on FOX or CNN this morning, the operator will put her through.

Which brings us to the bigger issue with the media and Trump – what Milbank calls “rigorous use of real-time fact checking.” Let’s just call it this: Good Reporting.

Milbank is right that when Trump does call-ins, his falsehoods often go unchallenged. Jake Tapper of CNN showed the right way to do the job earlier this month, when he asked Trump 24 times if his attack on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel was racist. Trump finally gave him an answer.

Other media need to be just as dogged and urgent about the truth. If Trump or Clinton says something demonstrably false, reporters need to report that the facts don’t match the claim. Some do so diligently, but not all. In a report this week on Trump and the Media, Thomas Patterson of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard noted that despite the media’s claim of a watchdog role, coverage of Trump by major outlets was decidedly more positive than negative.

One issue, Patterson found, is that surprisingly little of the coverage was on issues and ideology. Media didn’t spend much time challenging the positions Trump took and claims he made.

That seems to be changing now as the focus narrows to Trump and Clinton. It’s certainly been true lately, as Trump’s remarks on Curiel and the Orlando shootings have been more rigorously examined. That’s good. We don’t need a blackout on Trump coverage. We just need to do our jobs better.

Peter St. Onge

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