Trump is forcing the news media to embrace truth over neutrality

There is a difference between being truthful and being neutral. That’s what Christiane Amanpour, CNN Chief International Correspondent, said to Comedy Central’s Trevor Noah. People on all sides agree that the news media hasn’t done a good job particularly when it comes to election coverage. Mainstream news tends to favor sensationalism not newsworthiness. Political operatives have become experts at running out the clock with talking points in news interviews. The result is an audience exposed to more commercials than information. For years we watched politicians and their surrogates go completely unchallenged and manipulate news media to their benefit misrepresenting truths and peddling unsubstantiated rumors. They use the limits of time to put pressure on interviewers to move on to the next question. Donald Trump and his surrogates are doing the same thing, except his campaign is taking things a bit farther. Trump makes so many outlandish statements that his operatives labor to twist into talking points that the news media is being forced to take a different tact. Donald Trump is driving a new phenomenon among news anchors. Being tough on politicians and their operatives.

“Donald Trump is driving a new phenomenon among news anchors. Being tough on politicians and their operatives.”

Today I watched a video of Sean Spicer, communications director for the RNC, with MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhl. When Spicer began to give indirect answers to Ruhl’s questions about Hillary Clinton’s Nevada speech connecting Donald Trump’s campaign and fringe nationalist groups she immediately interrupted him.

Spicer fights to give an indirect answer feigning frustration in not being allowed to provide one when his main objective is to deliver the talking points. When Spicer says Clinton’s campaign is desperate, Rhul asks if Trump’s campaign is desperate. When Spicer says Clinton’s claims are outlandish, Rhul asks is Trump’s claims outlandish. Typically the political surrogate will deliver a lengthy talking point uninterrupted. The interviewer may or may not follow up or ask re-ask once couching the question to get a more direct answer but usually will not get one. Then everyone moves on to the next question. The difference now is that news anchors are holding fast. They stay on one topic with one guest asking questions over and over again and refuting misdirection allowing segments to go beyond 10 minutes at times. Another thing I’ve seen is anchors astutely pivoting when the guest changes the subject. They are unafraid to improvise and ask poignant questions in response to the guests reframing of the conversation. Instead of trying to keep them in the barn the anchors are willing to track their guests out into the wilderness peppering them with relevant questions.

In the past you may hear a tough question posed to a candidate or his operatives on occasion, just as often as you see a interview local reporter land a big interview attempt to grandstand on the auspices of seeking truth. But this is starting to feel like a wave. A wave that’s taking hold more than two months before election day.

For me, an early hint of this new wave of responsible journalism, in which truthfulness is valued over perceptions of neutrality, happened way back in March of 2015. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos interviewed Indiana Governor (now vice presidential candidate) Mike Pence about the hoosier state’s religious freedom law. The law was controversial and widely said to be an anti-gay marriage law.

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Stephanopoulos asks Pence a direct question, “Yes or no. If a florist in Indiana refuses to serve a gay couple in their wedding is that legal now in Indiana?” Pence did not answer directly. He instead talked about how much intolerance the people of Indiana are suffering because of the criticism of the law. For over 12 minutes Stephanopoulos continued his line of questioning. He asked Pence a version of the same question five different times “Can a florist deny service to a gay couple under this law?” Most of the time the question was framed as a yes or no question. Pence sidestepped the question each time and ultimately never gave either a yes or no answer.

Incidentally, Stephanopoulos is the last journalist of any news outlet (other than Fox News) to have interviewed Donald Trump in the last 4 weeks when they discussed Putin and Trumps rhetorical fight with the Kahn family. (My fear of coming off as neutral compels me to share this story from NPR – “Has Hillary Clinton actually been dodging the press?”)

“How dare we cover the remarks he makes.” – Jake Tapper, CNN

CNN’s Jake Tapper has been stepping forward with the best impression of Newsroom’s Will McAvoy this Election season. Most recently, Tapper had moment on “State of the Union” that was worthy of a “Thug Life” compilation. Trump surrogate and former Arizona Governor Jan Brewer quibbles that the media takes “little statements that Donald Trump makes” and blows them out of proportion. When she finishes her point Tapper nonchalantly quips, “how dare we cover the remarks he makes.” Then swiftly moves on with the segment. watch here. In the past the anchor would have let that comment pass without a challenge, or in this case, a sharp and undercutting quip.

In May 2016 just before polls closed in the Indiana primary election Tapper delivered a monologue rebuking Trump for giving credence to an uncorroborated report that the father of his GOP rival Ted Cruz was involved with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Watch here. Tapper also debunked rumors drudged up by Donald Trump that the Clintons murdered their friend Vince Foster Watch here.

The most compelling conversation about how the media has been covering Trump has between Jake Tapper and Bob Garfield of WNYC’s “On The Media”. Garfield takes a stance that borders on treating Trump with hostility. From Garfield’s perspective journalists are bending over backwards to keep up appearances of objectivity in the face of misinformation from the Trump campaign. Tapper does a good job of defending his “sweet hammering” style but Garfield challenges the convention of being respectful of Trump in interviews. Garfield then asks Tapper, “what of Trump wins?” Tapper responded saying, “then a majority of the American people have voted for him. I’m not trying to defeat a candidate. My job is to make sure voters have facts and as much information as I can give them. I’m not rooting for or against him.” Garfield responds honestly saying, “I am rooting against him in a very big way… The voters will do what the voters will do, but it can’t be because we in the press didn’t do enough.” In the end, they both concede that the press could be doing more to question both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Possibly the most viral of these segments so far, spurring two hashtags #SaysWho and #AllOfThem, is the back and forth between CNN’s Brianna Keillar and Trump attorney Michael Cohen [at the top of this post]. It seems clear that journalists have changed the way they talk to political operatives. Maybe producers are greenlighted these exchanges because the onair fireworks are great for page views, shares, and ratings, I don’t know. The unintended result turns out to be cable news outlets doing a better job of prioritizing truthfulness over neutrality.

I almost forgot, Brianna had another viral moment with Trump supporter Rep. Sean Duffy discussing questions about Hillary Clinton’s health asking Duffy, “who doesn’t occasionally cough?” watch here.


Luis Antonio Perez is an incoming graduate student at Northwestern University’s MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises. He is a former host and producer at Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo Radio.