Martyn McLaughlin: The media is duty bound to scrutinise Trump, not ignore him

The president-elect's thorny tweets are part of a ploy, but the press must not turn away, says Martyn McLaughlin

Twitter will play a crucial role in Donald Trump's campaigning presidential style. Picture: Ralph Freso/Getty
Twitter will play a crucial role in Donald Trump's campaigning presidential style. Picture: Ralph Freso/Getty

It is an observation which, like so many conventions of democratic political discourse, looks set to be turned on its head come January, when President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

In the past fortnight, the victor of the US election has been especially prolific on Twitter, exhibiting the unique staccato bluster with which he speaks unto the nation.

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Over a series of posts, few of which have sought to make good his promise to “bind the wounds of division”, he has levelled numerous unsubstantiated allegations. Variously, they include: claiming millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election; warning of “serious” fraud across three states; inviting a stairheid rammy with China; and suggesting anyone who burns the American flag should have their citizenship revoked, or be imprisoned.

The sequence of missives has reignited discussion amongst journalists, particularly those in the US, about how, if at all, the media should report Mr Trump’s remarks on the social networking site.

The latter question, focusing on whether a tweet is news, is one that has had tied the media in knots for too long and without good reason. The answer is obvious: not necessarily in isolation, but it is as valid a form of communication as an ad lib or a prepared press statement, and should be granted the same consideration, context and analysis. Yet since Mr Trump’s win, there have been growing calls to cease such basic journalistic duties. The historian Fred Kaplan is among a sizeable band of commentators who believe that the media’s coverage of the Trump administration over the next four years will require new ground rules, chief among them the decision to “ignore his tweets”.

In Mr Kaplan’s opinion, the billionaire’s remarks on Twitter – which, as seen above, routinely take the form of a tapestry of self-promotion, provocation and erroneous proclamations – are tantamount to trolling and therefore unworthy of being reported at all. The scattergun messages, he suggested, are “subterfuge to distract us from real scandals”.

Jack Shafer, a journalist for Politico, has made a similar plea. In a widely circulated opinion piece, he warned of Mr Trump’s “bait and switch” strategy and implored his colleagues and the wider public to resist the temptation of engaging with him. “Know that Trump wants you to tweet back at him the first thing that comes to your offended brain,” he said.

His advice against impetuous replies is wise, but the crux of his argument assumes the press and ordinary readers are like a dog chasing its tail, incapable of simultaneously focusing on Mr Trump’s social media output and his policy proposals. Increasingly, the two are intertwined. While most presidents in waiting would have issued a statement or convened a news event to answer questions about conflicts of interest, Mr Trump saw fit to address the issue over four tweets, while deftly avoiding minor inconveniences such as details.

Astonishingly, it has been 133 days since he last held a press conference, and his calculated hostility towards the fourth estate is as prominent in this transition period as it was throughout the campaign.

Only on Monday did Mr Trump, apropos of nothing, send out a tweet which read: “If the press would cover me accurately & honorably, I would have far less reason to ‘tweet.’ Sadly, I don’t know if that will ever happen!”

The construct he has created is self-serving and will remain firmly in place. When he is able to use Twitter in the same way Franklin D Roosevelt controlled key messages via his cosy fireside chat radio broadcasts, what motivation is there for him to change tact?

There is no great intellectual breakthrough in acknowledging that Mr Trump’s belligerent Twitter persona, the one he employed so successfully in his campaign, is a tactic to avoid scrutiny of the myriad controversies surrounding his administration, of which more will doubtless follow. But it is more than that. It is morphing into a governing strategy for a unique blend of leadership.

Even ensconced in power, Mr Trump’s will be a campaigning presidency. It cannot be anything but, given the cabinet he is assembling spans a divergent and controversial spectrum of views from the right, with a figurehead who is politically elusive, ideologically fickle, and in thrall to popularism.

Whatever unity exists come the New Year will be sorely tested and cracks will eventually appear, an especially wounding prospect for only the fifth president in history to have lost the popular vote.

In this scenario, waging a perpetual attack on common enemies on Twitter should not be dismissed as a distraction technique alone, it is also a means of shoring up support and projecting consensus.

The prose will be disjointed and there will be precious little poetry, but journalists must end their collective mea culpa and focus on essential evidence-based reporting.

Instead of repeating Mr Trump’s tweets verbatim, that means assessing their veracity as well as their intent.

Whatever its failings in the campaign, the media is now scrutinising a president, not a candidate. His words, however unpalatable, matter more than ever.