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How to Better Cover the Crimes of Donald Trump
Framing the question of whether Americans want a sexual abuser and a fraudster in the presidency.
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
The most recent former president of the United States—currently leading in his race to secure a third consecutive nomination by his party— has been adjudged a sexual abuser. That was the conclusion of a jury of his peers in the city where he lived the first 70 years of his life, a jury chosen from residents of the island on which he lived for 45 of those years. The news led the New York Times site for 14 hours, about half of that time overnight.
Last year, the former president’s conduct was put before another jury in his hometown. They concluded that the company he used to run committed criminal tax fraud during the time he was CEO. His former longtime CFO, perhaps his closest business associate, is now in prison on those charges. I mention this, even though you probably know it, because no one ever talks about it anymore, as if it isn’t much of a big deal.
Next year, the former president is scheduled to be tried in yet a third Manhattan courtroom on criminal charges relating to his essentially undisputed payment of hush money to a porn star just ahead of the balloting in his first campaign. Even his defenders pretty much concede he did this, and in order to keep the information from voters; they say it doesn’t amount to a crime.
If your head ISN’T exploding as you read this, please think about taking a deep breath, starting again from the top of this week’s column and reading it again.
News and the boiling frog
One big risk in the news business is always that we become so inured to something that we lose sight of its momentousness. This could be said to be at the heart of the nation’s—and the world’s—failure to do anywhere near enough to stem catastrophic climate change. Our ever-shortening attention to each episode of the mass slaughter even of children by assault weapons in private hands is another example.
This week, in the wake of Trump’s official branding as a sexual abuser and ahead of his apparently likely forthcoming indictments for seeking to overthrow a national election and obstruct justice, I want to take a moment to urge editors not to repeat these errors.
Weather forecasters have actually become pretty good at reminding us why so many extreme storms and heat waves are happening. Those in the business of “hard news” need to behave more like those weather forecasters. Don’t let readers and listeners and viewers forget the context.
Speaking of which…
If candidate Trump ever gets around to presenting a tax plan, make sure every story describing it prominently includes the fact that he presided over a corporate tax fraud. Whenever charting the campaign debate on women’s health issues, make sure to remind people that a jury, after hearing his victim’s accusations and his own denials, concluded he committed a sexual assault. If he calls for toughness against crime, include the status of the federal investigation into his apparent obstruction of justice in a national security investigation. When he asks people for their votes, note that the last time he ran, he tried to steal the election even after garnering seven million fewer popular votes than his opponent and less than 38% of the electoral votes.
Above all, put these unique events in unique perspective. Instead of blandly noting, following Trump’s arrest in the Stormy Daniels case, that President Ulysses Grant was also once arrested, take some time to elucidate for readers the difference between a speeding ticket and criminal fraud.
Jay Rosen of NYU has proposed as a mantra for political coverage, “not the odds, but the stakes.” That is part of the answer: re-framing coverage away from gauging everything by how political professionals think something is playing or will play with the electorate (or part of it), toward what the campaign will determine. It’s a valuable perspective, not only because the stakes right now are exceedingly high, but also, frankly, because reporters who focus on the political odds, as a group, have a miserable record in prognostication. They are, after all, the people who wrote off repeat candidate Joe Biden, and Richard Nixon before him, long before their victories, who failed to take Donald Trump, and Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama before him, seriously until the calendar had turned to the year of the election in which they prevailed.
Finally, don’t assume that news consumers have already absorbed everything you published just once. During the next 18 months, the American people must make one of the most momentous choices in our history. They must decide whether again to give power to a man who has offered every sign he would then try never to surrender it, a man his hometown peers have adjudged a sexual abuser, a man who led a criminal enterprise. Over the 18 months ahead, journalism has no more important role than to make sure that voters make their choice fully understanding this.
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