By:
October 7, 2020

President Donald Trump often talks about how he is the best thing to ever happen to the media. He claims he is the reason people watch cable news networks and subscribe to papers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. He says TV ratings will plummet and newspapers will disappear when he is no longer president.

Is he right?

Would a Trump loss in November actually be bad for the news business? It’s a topic that Vanity Fair’s Tom Kludt explores in: “‘This Gravy Train is Coming to an End’: News Media Begins to Contemplate a Post-Trump White House.”

One cable news host told Kludt, “We in the news media have thought for years that this gravy train is coming to an end. Donald Trump brought us better ratings than we ever thought we’d have by this time in 2020.” The host added that Trump has “given many of us extended relevance, or new relevance.”

This is a topic I discussed on Dan Abrams’ SiriusXM radio show in early August. That was what seems like a million news cycles ago and there’s a new explosive story almost every day.

Honestly, it’s hard to remember what life was like before Trump.

New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet told Kludt, “I think early on we probably tried to attach our traditional rules of coverage, our traditional norms, to Donald Trump — and he defied them. The American press covers extensively when the president of the United States briefs and makes comments about issues, but you have to cover it very differently when the president of the United States obfuscates and often misleads people and sometimes lies.”

So if Trump loses in November, would everything go back to the way it was before Trump? Whatever that was?

My feeling now is the same as when I spoke with Abrams: Trump has forever changed the media landscape. Cable news has changed. The nation is more polarized. That won’t change regardless of who is president.

And, even if Trump loses in November, I don’t believe he will simply ride off quietly into the sunset. He still will tweet and appear on TV and, who knows, maybe even still hold rallies. Many news outlets could simply choose to not cover him, especially since he would be a private citizen with no real power. But it’s also naive to think he will be invisible and that he won’t have followers. And some coverage.

In the event of a Biden victory, Fox News, certainly, won’t become less relevant with someone in the White House to beat up every night. And everyone else will keep on keeping on with plenty of news to cover. Maybe that news won’t be Trump’s latest tweet or policy plan, but there will still be news.

I’ve also argued that a Trump victory in November could actually lead many to dissociate from the news. Those who are anti-Trump might, in a depressed and stressed state, unplug from the news for a while, especially with no upcoming election to gear up for. And what will Fox News’ primetime entertainers — Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — complain about and attack if Republicans are in control and, again, there is no election on the horizon?

We still have a few weeks left before the election. After all that has happened in 2020, it’s hard to predict what might happen today let alone after the election or a year from now.

But, ultimately, news organizations will carry on. The New York Times has been around 169 years. The Post has been around 142 years. “Meet the Press” has been on the air since 1947. “Face the Nation” has been on since 1953. Cable news has become a viewing habit. Somehow, the news will carry on — with or without Trump.

Polling problems for the president

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at Gettysburg National Military Park on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Yes, this is an item about polls. And, yes, I realize that many folks are gun shy about polls after 2016.

Anyway, a new CNN poll shows Biden with a 57% to 41% advantage, the largest lead in any CNN poll so far. Much could be a result of the past week.

CNN’s John King said on air, “The past week was a turning point. A New York Times report that the president pays little or nothing in taxes. A disastrous debate performance. A turn for the worse in the national coronavirus case count. And then a White House COVID outbreak that includes the president being hospitalized with a virus he told us would disappear six months ago.”

So has there really been a turning point? Has the past week changed things, perhaps even among those close to the president? Appearing on CNN, New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman said, “There’s no question that something is happening.”

Haberman pointed to mixed messages and dissembling coming from the White House about President Trump’s health and how that has been a problem.

“And look, the mask issue,” Haberman continued. “The president has been on the wrong side in terms of public opinion for many, many months and a lot of his advisers have tried explaining that to him and he will just not hear it.”

Meanwhile, the latest FiveThirtyEight election forecast has Biden winning 83 out of 100 times. And like the CNN poll, the past week does seem to have had an impact.

FiveThirtyEight writes, “It’s still really difficult to measure the effects of Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis on the election, but we can see how the polls have changed after the first presidential debate, and at this point, Biden has made some modest gains — on average, a 1.5-percentage-point gain in the 11 national and 11 state polls that have been released since the debate and for which we have a pre-debate poll.”

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VP debate tonight

The scene outside of Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah, site of tonight’s vice presidential debate. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris, as of now, is still on for tonight. And that leads me to three questions:

  • Are they really going to pull this thing off while a sizable portion of the White House has tested positive for coronavirus?
  • This debate has to be more civil and productive than last week’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, right?
  • And does it even feel relevant at this point, with all else that is going on in the country?

The answers are: yes, yes and yes. Using extra safety precautions, although only after some lengthy and tense negotiations between the two camps, the debate will go on as planned, it appears. Yes, you would think it will be more civil and productive if the candidates and campaigns paid attention to the negative reaction that last week’s Trump-Biden debate received. And, yes, we should hope it’s relevant, although it might not change any minds.

CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod writes that Pence likely will “deliver the PG version of Trump’s debate brief, argued with more finesse but still honing in on Biden as the vessel for the ‘radical left.’” He also, Axelrod predicts, will hammer topics like “law and order” and economic recovery. Meanwhile, Axelrod believes Harris will promote Biden and his plans, while certainly making the coronavirus a major talking point.

(PolitiFact’s Josie Hollingsworth has “How to Watch the 2020 Vice Presidential Debate.”)

The debate, as with all debates, will also depend on the third person on the stage: the moderator. In this case, it will be USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page.

Who is Page? She has spent 47 years in journalism, where she has covered 10 presidential elections, six administrations and interviewed nine presidents. She likely won’t have to play referee as much as Chris Wallace did in the Trump-Biden debate, and you would expect fair and tough questions for both candidates.

Page is coming off a recent controversy after a Congressional investigation revealed that she hosted a “Girls’ Night Out” event at her home in 2018 in honor of Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma. The investigation found that the event was paid for in part by the agency Verma now heads, meaning taxpayer dollars were used for a social gathering — a violation of government rules. Page, who also paid more than $4,000 for the event, was criticized for hosting the event in her home, which many argued conflicted with her ability to cover the administration objectively.

USA Today defended Page’s role, saying Page didn’t know the administration was billed and that hosting the party did not violate any ethical standards. It also pointed out that these events are fairly common and have been hosted by other prominent journalists such as “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell and “PBS NewsHour” anchor Judy Woodruff.

The next presidential debate

Trump tweeted on Tuesday, “I am looking forward to the debate on the evening of Thursday, October 15th in Miami. It will be great!”

There is no way this debate will happen, right? Oct. 15 is still within a two-week window of when Trump says he tested positive for COVID-19.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who is a Republican, told Politico’s Marc Caputo that Trump shouldn’t come to Miami if he is still testing positive.

“I don’t think it’s safe, not for him and anybody else, anywhere or anyone he interacts with,” Suarez said. “Remember, this thing is highly contagious. How many people are infected in his inner circle, in the White House, senators, et cetera?”

Our misinformation problem

Check out the fabulous interview that Vox’s Sean Illing did with Charlie Warzel, a tech reporter at The New York Times who has covered the information wars during the Trump presidency. The two go over a lot of ground, including the flood of speculation and factless punditry that we saw in the hours after Trump said he tested positive for the coronavirus.

And, with still a few weeks before the election, we’re going to see a lot more misleading, wrong and dangerous information floating around, especially on the internet and places such as Facebook and Twitter. I found this quote from Warzel to be particularly insightful:

“There’s no reason for anyone to be consuming information from the social media firehose at this moment — there just isn’t. A lot of news is going to occur, especially in the next couple months, and I think it’s best consumed by picking and choosing your trusted sources and outlets, and going there. Subjecting yourself to all the fear and anxiety and trauma is a really inefficient way to get your news, and it doesn’t help you understand the world any better. So pick a couple places you trust, places where you believe you’re going to get the right information, and basically check them once or twice a day at the most.”

Speaking of misinformation …

Facebook removed a post by President Trump on Wednesday in which Trump tried to downplay the coronavirus by comparing it to the flu. Twitter left the post up, but hid it behind its disclaimer that it “violated Twitter Rules about spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19.”

Media tidbits

  • I was going to write about the latest dumb thing said by Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren, but is she even relevant enough to discuss in detail? I mean, does anyone even care what she thinks? About anything?
  • Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, authors of the superb Politico newsletter Playbook, announced that they are leaving Politico at the end of the year. Sherman has been there for 11 years. Palmer has been there nine. They wrote, “it’s time for a new adventure” and “we’ll have more to say about our next steps soon enough.”

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

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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