When covering President Trump, what’s normal anymore?

The president says outrageous things. He lies. He creates chaos. He has normalized the abnormal and we — including the media — have helped him do it.

September 9, 2020
Category: Newsletters

When it comes to media coverage of President Donald Trump, what’s normal?

The president says outrageous things. He lies. He creates chaos. He makes ludicrous statements and hurls accusations and stirs up controversy.

Even after nearly four years of his presidency, Trump still can push buttons that have never been pushed before by a president and, frankly, many in the media still have a hard time figuring out just how to cover him.

There still is this attempt to normalize something that clearly isn’t normal. It happens every day, but this is just one small example as pointed out by Poynter Report reader James Devitt, an adjunct professor at New York University, who reached out to me Tuesday.

While reading a story in the Los Angeles Times, Devitt noticed this quote from Trump: “Biden is a stupid person. You know he doesn’t have a clue. In prime time he wasn’t good, and now it is not prime time.”

Normally, perhaps in another time not all that long ago, a president saying a presidential candidate is “stupid” would be a major news story. It would be the leading headline in every newspaper in the country and the lead story on every newscast.

But this Trump quote was in the 19th paragraph of a story.

Now let me be clear about something: This is NOT a criticism of the Times story. The story was about Trump’s campaign strategy and it was well reported and informative.

The truth is, Trump calling someone stupid, even his presidential opponent, really is not newsworthy. Not anymore. What’s breathtaking, Devitt says, is that it no longer is newsworthy.

That’s what Trump has done. He has normalized the abnormal and we — including the media — have helped him do it.

The media cannot jump on every single Trump quote or tweet and say, “This is really unusual for a president to say this.” If that was the case, it would take up valuable time that needs to be dedicated to covering actual issues and policies and fact-checking lies as opposed to covering name-calling or chasing baseless allegations down rabbit holes.

However, the media does need to remind audiences every now and then that this is not the traditional norm.

Keeping Trump happy

Michael Cohen’s new book — “Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney To President Donald J. Trump” — makes a few members of the media look fairly pathetic. As The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove and Maxwell Tani note, several media members, including the late Fox News boss Roger Ailes, Fox News primetime host Sean Hannity and National Enquirer executive David Pecker, often humiliated themselves to win President Trump’s approval.

The book details how Ailes, Hannity and Pecker tried to stay in Trump’s good graces and were bothered when they were not. Hannity, reportedly, complained about being “put in the penalty box” by Trump.

There is another alarming allegation in Cohen’s book when Ailes called Trump after a Republican debate in 2015 in which Trump was grilled by moderator and then-Fox News on-air talent Megyn Kelly. According to Cohen, Ailes told Trump to stop inciting his supporters over Kelly.

Cohen wrote that Ailes called Trump and said, “Donald, we’ve got a problem. Megyn can’t come to the studio to do the show. She can’t go to her apartment. She’s got little kids. We can’t have this.”

Trump told Ailes, “She came after me. If you come after me, I come after you 10 times harder.”

Some kind of view

Sarah Sanders in a photo taken in 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Tuesday’s “The View” turned contentious with an appearance by former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. “The View” hosts grilled Sanders on President Trump’s response to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as well as The Atlantic story that alleged Trump has little respect for soldiers and veterans. Sanders vehemently defended Trump from the charges in The Atlantic story.

“That’s not who this president is and that’s not how he feels about the men and women who serve in our military,” Sanders said.

But then, and you knew this was coming, Sanders was confronted by “The View” co-host Meghan McCain, whose father — the late Sen. John McCain — was a prisoner of war who was once disparaged by Trump when Trump infamously said, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

McCain told Sanders, “The problem with this (Atlantic) story is it seems like something he would do, and I don’t doubt that you’ve had experiences, and I’ve seen videos with President Trump with troops and his family, but this has not been my experience. For me and my brothers who serve, we do not feel respected. We are a military family that does not feel respected or appreciated by this president.”

Sanders acknowledged that Trump and Sen. McCain did not get along.

“There’s no denying the fact that not only did Donald Trump dislike your father, your father disliked the president,” she said. “They had some very heated exchanges.”

Here’s the interview, with a hat tip to Mediaite.

Speaking of Sanders …

Sanders posted a video over the weekend disputing The Atlantic story. She called the story an “insult to journalism.” But Sanders made a misleading claim in her defense of the president. Sanders said, “I’ve also sat in the room when the president had to make the most difficult calls of his presidency: when he had to let a parent know that their son had been killed in the line of duty.”

Here’s the thing: Those who lose a family member in the service are not notified by phone and certainly not by the president. When The New York Times reached out to Sanders about this, Sanders texted that she was referring to a condolence call, not a notification call.

A sad story

Last month, Tribune Publishing decided to permanently close the physical offices of several of its newspapers, including the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. The staff hoped to clean out their desks, hold a rally and bid farewell to their newsroom on Monday. But Tribune Publishing nixed those plans, locking staffers out of the building because of COVID-19 concerns.

So, according to The Washington Post’s Tom Jackman, staffers (as well as former staffers and supporters from The Baltimore Sun) “gathered in the building’s parking lot Monday, painted protest messages on their cars and then drove down to the Annapolis harbor, where a group of about 200 people expressed their hope that the Capital and the Gazette would keep covering local news, even without a central home from which to do it.”

Many of the staffers were with the paper in June 2018 when a gunman stormed the newsroom and killed five. The Capital Gazette has changed buildings since then, but memories of that day remain raw.

Gazette features reporter Selene San Felice told Jackman, “You watched people die while you hid under a desk. Then you’re supposed to get better. Then you take that desk away from me. That’s how this feels. We’re not better. This isn’t better.”

Tribune Publishing’s Max Reinsdorf told Jackman that the Tribune was “sensitive to how challenging the decision” to close the newsroom was for the staffers, but that the economic impact of the coronavirus left the Tribune with no choice. It’s expected that when staffers do return to an office, they will work out of The Baltimore Sun newsroom.

Brennaman’s first comments since controversy

Thom Brennaman. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Thom Brennaman is speaking. The Cincinnati Reds broadcaster who was suspended three weeks ago for using an anti-gay slur during a hot mic moment told The New York Post’s Mark Fischer, “Believe me, I know there are a lot of people who are still very angry and I understand that.”

In his first public comments since that night, Brennaman said he never used that slur before in his life. But, he added, “I said it is all that matters. The rest of it is irrelevant. I said it. And I own it. And I’m the one who has to live with it.”

Now what? Brennaman was fired from his national job at Fox Sports calling NFL games, but he remains just suspended from his job calling Reds games by Fox Sports Ohio. Fischer writes that Brennaman has met with Evan Millward, a gay newscaster in Cincinnati, and will meet with Ryan Messer, an LGBTQ activist in Cincinnati. Millward and Messer, Fischer writes, see Brennaman as a reclamation project, and that Brennaman’s use of the slur can be used to teach just how hurtful that word is.

Not everyone is buying Brennaman’s story that this is the first time he used that word. Messer said, “If he used it then, he used it before.” The Big Lead’s Kyle Koster wrote, “What are the odds? Seriously, what are the odds?”

Still, Messer said, he wants to help Brennaman.

In the end, it’s hard to imagine how Brennaman returns to his old job. This isn’t so-called “cancel culture,” but there are some things that a broadcaster just can’t overcome. Using the word that Brennaman did in the way he did seems like one of those things.

Another Clinton podcast

Former President Bill Clinton is launching a new podcast with iHeart early next year. Deadline’s Ted Johnson reports that it will build off the pod that Clinton hosted last year for the Clinton Foundation that was called “Why Am I Telling You This?”

Craig Minassian, chief communications and marketing officer for the Clinton Foundation, told Johnson, “The show will be built on his gift for storytelling, his ability to explain complex issues in a relatable way and showcase his wide range of interests and well-known intellectual curiosity through conversations about the ideas and events that continue to shape his work and our world.”

Hillary Clinton also has a deal with iHeart for a podcast.

Digitally speaking

ABC News has announced three new digital video brands for mobile viewing. Called “Notified,” “Examined” and “Voices,” these news brands will look closely at the 2020 election and other news topics. The coverage also will include fact-checking and what ABC News calls “forensic-style work,” such as when it tracked the timeline of Kyle Rittenhouse the night he allegedly shot three protestors and killed two in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“Notified” is a daily headlines show that will come out midday each weekday. “Examined” will be a more in-depth look at news stories. “Voices” will feature more interviews and include graphics and detailed reporting.

Terry Hurlbutt, vice president and executive editor of ABC News Digital, pointed to increased mobile visitors in 2020 and added, “In this news cycle, we’re constantly seeking out new ways to engage our digital audiences. … I’m excited to continue to expand our digital offerings and look forward to what’s next.”

Media tidbits

  • Poynter’s MediaWise, which helps citizens sort fact from fiction online, has added three new ambassadors: CBS “Face the Nation” moderator Margaret Brennan, “PBS Newshour’s” Amna Nawaz and former CNN journalist Jessica Yellin.
  • Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds has the latest from The Salt Lake City Tribune.
  • Heather Gray and Kristin Matthews have been named joint executive producers/showrunners for “The Talk,” CBS’s daytime talk show. They replace John Redmann, who left after 10 seasons. Gray has been co-executive producer since 2011 and executive producer since August 2019. Matthews helped launch the show as coordinating producer in August 2011 and was named co-executive producer in August 2012.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

More resources for journalists

The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.