I began a recent session of my “Trump, Race, and U.S. Media” course at Davidson College with video clips of news reports about protests in the aftermath of the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision. In one clip, Donald Trump says this during a press conference when asked if he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power:
“Well, we’re gonna have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots. The ballots are a disaster. Get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a peaceful … there won’t be a transfer, frankly, there’ll be a continuation.”
I asked my students, which story would you have led with — the grand jury decision or Trump’s remarks — and why?
It was a simple test of news judgment and the ability to think critically during a chaotic time. The students said producers and editors needed to find a way to balance those stories to ensure neither of them was underplayed. They said the Taylor story should be given top consideration, though, because it represented a continuation of one of the most-pronounced, longest-lasting protest movements in the U.S. in decades. It highlighted race relations during a racial reckoning, touched on public safety, and could affect one of the most-anticipated presidential elections in recent memory.
At least one student gave an additional reason: The Trump story was less important because the American public is used to Trump saying outlandish things.
The president of the United States wouldn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power — the bedrock of our democracy — and it’s not newsworthy because that president has also asked if putting disinfectant inside the body could be a cure for Covid-19 and retweeted a supporter yelling “white power,” among many other things. That, too, is sound reasoning. News, after all, is often about the unusual, not the norm.
We don’t write about planes landing safely but provide non-stop coverage when an airliner falls from the sky. But what happens when airliners falling from the sky become routine? How to properly respond to such a topsy-turvy reality? I don’t think we know. We’d struggle against normalizing the resulting death and destruction. It would be a struggle because for such a long time our instincts have told us that the more routine a thing becomes, the less newsworthy it is, no matter how awful.
That’s what we’ve been facing with Trump since he announced his presidential candidacy in 2015. It’s been non-stop chaos. A major story can hardly get a fair hearing before another one supplants it, and another keeps that cycle going. It’s essentially what Stephen Bannon, former head of Breitbart News and former Trump adviser, said in 2018: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Trump has mastered that game. He has fatigued the system. We know our audiences are exhausted, tired of hearing about yet another outrageous thing the president has said or done. Heck, we are tired of having to process and grapple with it all. It feels as though we haven’t been able to exhale in five years.
But we can’t give into the exhaustion. We can’t allow to become the norm a president of the United States intimating that there would be violence if an election’s results don’t suit his fancy. We can’t downplay it. We can’t look away. Each of us knows that in no other administration would that have been acceptable. It would have been unimaginable. It was unimaginable, until now.
I’ve already seen a push from several commentators that we should not “freak out” about the president’s words, that we should realize that the president can’t make good on them. I’m sympathetic to the argument but unconvinced. There is no need for journalists to freak out, of course. That doesn’t mean we mustn’t take the threat seriously and remain diligent.
We must tell our audiences that we get why they are exhausted, but also why it would be unwise for them to look away, either. We must remind them that the president’s words alone can create undue questions about the legitimacy of our electoral process, as well as about the disturbing behavior we’ve seen from Attorney General William Barr, who seems to be trying to help Trump in those efforts. We don’t need another WikiLeaks document dump or Russian interference to foment distrust about our democracy. Those efforts are emanating from the highest levels of the federal government.
We must almost make another disturbing reality plain — that top officials in Trump’s party seem little interested in reining him in, despite their milquetoast comments assuring the public that a peaceful transition would occur, as it always has. Remember, these are the same officials who swore up and down that they wouldn’t appoint a new Supreme Court justice in 2016, an election year. “What scares me is that every path I see for an orderly transfer of power on Inauguration Day 2021 involves GOP politicians for some reason suddenly acting differently than they have in every instance for the last 4 years,” Harvard political scientist Ryan D. Enos tweeted.
That should scare us. Trump has put journalists in the unenviable position of having to defend democracy against a sitting president of the United States. It’s uncomfortable. But we cannot use that as an excuse to shirk our responsibilities. There’s a reason the Founders specifically protected our industry — for times such as these.
We can play our role responsibly by telling audiences why the threat of electoral chaos Trump poses is real but far from inevitable, that he can do a lot of damage because of the power he wields, but that he is not all-powerful. He can undermine this democracy for years or decades even if he loses in November and is ushered out of the White House on Jan. 20, 2021. We must continue the work exposing irregularities at the Postal Service, the Russian misinformation campaign, and provide our audiences with tools to better navigate fact and fiction. Most importantly, we can remind readers, listeners, and viewers of the role they play and of the numerous ways to vote — including in-person, which is as safe as grocery shopping — and helping as many Americans as we can participate in our democracy that way.
“I promise you, as a Republican, if the Supreme Court decides that Joe Biden wins, I will accept the result,” Lindsey Graham said to assure the public he is committed to a peaceful transfer of power. We can’t rely upon empty promises from politicians who have proven their promises to protect democracy simply can’t be trusted. We must make it clear to our audiences that the American people — and particularly voters — will decide what happens next, not Graham, not Trump, not the Supreme Court.
We must never allow them to lose sight of that; neither must we allow the flood to numb us to real threats against that truth.