October 12, 2022 Editor

If Trump Runs Again, Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto

I believed in traditional reporting, but Trump changed me — and it should change the rest of the media too.

Perspective by Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan was The Post’s media columnist from 2016 until late August. This article is adapted from her memoir, “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-Stained Life,” to be published this month by St. Martin’s Press.

October 12, 2022

image above: David Szauder for The Washington Post

WN: Though I’ve always on principle distrusted somewhat the vested interests of any media outlet/person, this journalist is compelling . . .


Despite my nearly four decades in journalism, I was unprepared for the moment of no return that came on a July day in 2016, as a blazing sun beat down on the streets of Cleveland.

On social media, in phone messages, in emails I received, the sheer hatred from Trump supporters shocked and even frightened me. One, unsigned but from a “lifetime member of the NRA,” asserted that people like me wouldn’t be around much longer. Another, signed “A Real, True Patriot,” read:

. . . but nothing measured up to the horror I felt as I registered the meaning of a T-shirt featuring the image of a noose and these words: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”

“Though I would never read a manure-laden pile of toilet paper like Washington Compost, I heard about your Nazi column about ‘reaching the masses’ with your fake news to convince people that your leftist Nazi lies are truth. You are a well-trained serpent of the left, following communist orders as you were taught. ‘If you say and repeat a lie often enough, it will eventually be seen as truth’ — Lenin … Here’s what you (slithering, fake-news/propaganda- generating slimy slug) should do: Go fornicate yourself with a large, sharp knife, and then eat rat poison until your belly is stuffed.”

I was called the c-word repeatedly. One reader suggested I have my breasts cut off. I tried to let all this nastiness roll off my back and even found it amusing when a Post reader sent me an email calling me a “venomous serpent.” John Schwartz, then a reporter for the New York Times who had become a friend, suggested I treat it as a badge of honor and write a book titled “Memories of a Venomous Serpent.”

Now, six years later, we journalists know a lot more about covering Trump and his supporters. We’ve come a long way, but certainly made plenty of mistakes. Too many times, we acted as his stenographers or megaphones. Too often, we failed to refer to his many falsehoods as lies. It took too long to stop believing that, whenever he calmed down for a moment, he was becoming “presidential.” And it took too long to moderate our instinct to give equal weight to both sides, even when one side was using misinformation for political gain.

It’s been an education for all of us — a gradual realization that the instincts and conventions of traditional journalism weren’t good enough for this moment in our country’s history. As Trump prepares to run again in 2024, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the lessons we’ve learned — and committing to the principle that, when covering politicians who are essentially running against democracy, old-style journalism will no longer suffice.

Back in 2016, I was still looking for common ground with the Trump crowd. It fit with my background as a traditional newspaper journalist. During nearly 13 years as chief editor of the Buffalo News, ending in 2012, I had believed that I could listen to or communicate with our readers, whatever their politics — and I was registered to vote as a “blank.” Our editorial board, which I sat on, endorsed candidates from various parties, and I had courteous relationships with officeholders of all stripes. I frequently would go out to speak to civic organizations, such as rotary clubs, in the Buffalo-Niagara region with no regard for whether their members leaned right or left.

When Trump rants about the supposed horrors of rigged elections and voting fraud, journalists have to constantly provide the counterweight of truth. We have gotten better at this since 2016. Now we have to stick to it.

At the Cleveland airport after the convention, I interviewed one delegate, a concierge for a car dealership named Mary Sue McCarty, who wore a cowboy hat and pearls as she waited for her flight home to Dallas. She had her mind made up about the news media: “Journalists aren’t doing their jobs. They are protecting a certain class.” When I pointed out that it was the New York Times that broke the consequential story about Hillary Clinton’s email practices and that mainstream media organizations had aggressively investigated the finances of the Clinton Foundation, she shrugged: “If it’s a Republican, it’s investigated to death. If it’s a Democrat, it’s breezed over.”

This assertion could hardly have been more wrong. After all, the media’s endless emphasis on Clinton’s emails would prove to be a big factor in dooming her campaign. It simply wasn’t the case that the press was giving Democrats a pass.

Clearly, the empirical common ground I depended upon — and believed in — was eroding. Dealing with that growing reality over the next few years would change me as a journalist and even as a person. Some principles and beliefs, I found, were more important than appearing to get along with everyone or responding to criticism by offering to compromise or change course. Journalists have to stand, unwaveringly, for the truth — and if that meant being attacked by zealots who wanted to call such a position evidence of bias, I could live with that. For me, it would soon become a matter of simple integrity to acknowledge that some of the old-school rules and practices didn’t work anymore.

The standards should be the same for all. But journalists shouldn’t shy away from the unavoidable truth: Most of this [blatant lying] is coming from Trump-style Republicans.

Unfortunately, many media organizations — increasingly owned these days by huge corporations or hedge funds — seem more interested in ratings and profits than in serving the public interest. So, they are extremely hesitant to offend groups of viewers or voters, including the many Republicans who have signed on to the lie about the 2020 election being stolen. The new boss of CNN, Chris Licht, raised eyebrows when he made the rounds on Capitol Hill a few months ago to assure Republican leaders that members of their party would be treated fairly on the network that had been one of the former president’s favorite punching bags. One conservative publication, the Washington Free Beacon, called Licht’s unusual outreach an “apology tour.” Given all this, it’s difficult to picture CNN consistently alerting viewers that a politician is an election denier, even when discussing a different subject. Yet that’s exactly the type of bold measure that is needed.

By no means am I counseling that journalists act as if they are “on the team” of Trump’s rivals. That’s not our job. At the same time, we have to be aware that covering someone who doesn’t care about democratic norms — even something as basic as the peaceful transfer of power — requires different judgments about what stories really matter, and how we should or should not cover them.

In making these judgments, we have to relentlessly explain ourselves to our readers, viewers and listeners. Although it didn’t involve Trump, a good example of this came over the summer when the Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland decided against covering a rally for U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance featuring Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis because of the absurdly restrictive rules the campaign had tried to impose, including a prohibition against interviewing attendees who weren’t approved by rally organizers. Instead, the Plain Dealer published white space, with a note to readers written by editor Chris Quinn headlined, “We reject the free speech-trampling rules set by J.D. Vance and Ron DeSantis for covering their rally.” Quinn was blunt: “Think about what they were doing here. They were staging an event to rally people to vote for Vance while instituting the kinds of policies you’d see in a fascist regime.”

The standards should be the same for all. But journalists shouldn’t shy away from the unavoidable truth: Most of this [blatant lying] is coming from Trump-style Republicans.

When Trump rants about the supposed horrors of rigged elections and voting fraud, journalists have to constantly provide the counterweight of truth. We have gotten better at this since 2016. Now we have to stick to it.

Please click on: Do Not Cover Him the Same Way: A Journalist’s Manifesto

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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.