By Howard Kurtz, ,
Published March 09, 2017
We are somehow submerged again in a pointless debate that I thought had been settled: Should media people ignore Donald Trump’s tweets?
The answer, in my view, is obvious: He’s the president of the United States, everything he says is news, it doesn’t matter whether the form is a 140-character message, a YouTube video, a radio address or an answer to a shouted question while walking to Marine One.
But the argument has taken on new resonance after Trump’s tweetstorm about Barack Obama having ordered him wiretapped during the campaign, a claim for which neither he nor his top aides have offered any evidence.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper told Stephen Colbert that “I’ve actually muted the president on Twitter” because “I just don’t want to have that drama in my life.” But that was more of a joke, and Cooper made no claim that the tweets weren’t news.
Rachel Maddow told The Wrap that on her MSNBC show, “We developed sort of an informal, internal mantra… which is that we basically cover them as if they are a silent movie. I stopped covering the Twitter feed.” The reason, she said, is that “the White House and its chief spokespeople have been called out saying stuff that’s not true over and over and over again.”
Of course, Maddow and everyone else wound up covering “the Twitter feed” when Trump uncorked the wiretap allegation, because there was such an avalanche of reaction from members of Congress, the intelligence community, the media, and reporters and anchors questioning White House officials about the claim.
Now comes Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of DailyWire.com, with a National Review piece that makes a different argument from the right.
The administration “seems divided along two channels: the rhetorical (the Sunday shows, Trump’s Twitter, Sean Spicer’s eminently watchable press conferences, profiles of Steve Bannon in Time) and the active (the executive orders, curbing of regulations, military action abroad).”
Both provide a real picture of the White House, but “here’s a suggestion. Instead of treating Trump’s rhetoric seriously, wouldn’t America be better off if we did ignore it? What if instead of going nuts over a half-baked Trump tweet for a week, we all just recognized that the tweet is what it is: a half-baked Trump tweet? What if we returned to the notion of the president as a constitutional officer with prescribed duties?”
Now it’s true, as Shapiro explains, that before FDR and the rise of modern communications, Americans didn’t know much about what their presidents were saying day to day. But we live in a real-time world now.
My problem with the forget-the-tweets approach is that journalists shouldn’t be in the business of decreeing that a president’s words aren’t news. Whether the president is saying something half-baked, quarter-baked or fully baked, such postings provide an insight into his thinking and approach to the job. And they can have an immediate impact on markets, companies, political institutions and other countries.
Even more important is the question of accountability. What if the press had decided to put off-limits some provocative, controversial or fact-challenged tweets by Barack Obama? Wouldn’t there have been an uproar on the right about how the media were protecting Obama, even censoring his words?
Shapiro does make a telling observation: “Most Americans don’t care about Trump’s rhetoric any more. He and the media have been shouting at each other so long that it all sounds like white noise now.”
Journalists often forget that everyone’s not on Twitter, everyone’s not watching cable all day, everyone’s not following all the nuances of political and policy debates. And yes, the press doesn’t need to go haywire if Trump fires off a tweet about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s demise as the “Apprentice” host.
Ultimately, the president will be judged on his performance. But it’s not the job of the press to say that his words don’t matter.