Trump’s return to Twitter poses another test the media will fail

One of the likeliest and most dramatic things that Elon Musk will do once he has acquired Twitter is let Donald Trump back on.

The effect on our nation’s discourse will be disastrous. And, sadly, I fully expect the news media to go back to its old ways of serving as Trump’s megaphone.

News coverage of Trump’s remonstrations, accusations, and prevarications declined sharply when he was permanently banned from Twitter, two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection he fomented. But I suspect it will return to something approaching pre-ban levels when and if he returns.

I don’t think the political reporters in our top newsrooms have learned anything. It was Twitter’s ban that caused them to lose interest, not their insight or wisdom.

I was frankly surprised at how effectively the Twitter ban reduced Trump’s voice in the media. Part of it was certainly that the frequency of his postings dropped precipitously. But I think key reporters felt both liberated and obligated to pay attention to him when he was on Twitter.

Liberated, because covering Trump was never easier and more exhilarating than when a tweet’s crazy content made for clickbait stories and a TV hit.

And obligated because Twitter was (to them at least) the public square, so they figured that Trump shouting there couldn’t be ignored.

Once he’s back on Twitter, Trump will again be impossible for some political reporters to ignore — especially the worst, most attention-seeking ones, many of whom sadly dominate the major media outlets of the country.

Twitter’s content moderation has sometimes been highly problematic. Its censorship and punishment of the New York Post, for instance, was a major mistake. The October 2020 article in question was credulous and hugely problematic, but hardly a danger to the republic.

Banning Trump, by contrast, was a profound public service. Trump is and was an uncanny, uniquely destructive person. The way he describes people and issues brings out the worst in his enthralled supporters. And when it’s being regularly broadcast and amplified, it severely skews the center of gravity of the political discourse toward hatred, racism, misogyny and division.

The Big Lie in particular is a toxic concept, poisoning his supporters with disinformation and the righteous obligation to dismiss and attack the results of democratic elections that don’t go their way. No respectable medium or platform should be a party to spreading it.

For Twitter to say that it doesn’t want to be used in such a way is highly appropriate. I’m a “free-speech absolutist” when it comes to government controls over speech. But non-governmental organizations can set their own standards. They’re not obligated to host speech that consists of lies and incitement.

As for the media, I’m not saying political reporters should ignore Trump’s tweets when they start up again. But if they rise to the level of newsworthiness, reporters should not simply quote his lies and then rebut them with facts. They need to provide context. And in the case of Trump’s tweets, the context is motive: the why behind the lie.

So a story about Trump tweeting out the Big Lie, for instance, should start off by addressing why he would do that:

Trump again today repeated a lie intended to mislead his supporters and cast doubt on any future election in which he loses.

Then it should delve into the effect this lie is having:

The lie, amplified by the Fox network and other spreaders of disinformation and propaganda, incited the Jan. 6 insurrection, has persuaded the vast majority of Republicans that the 2020 election was stolen, and has led to threats of violence against election workers, among many other downstream effects.

Then could come some background on how there was no widespread fraud, no conspiracy, and in fact copious evidence that the election was fair and honest and he lost.

Only then, if at all, would it be appropriate to quote the tweet.

I am not hopeful, however.

Putting Trump back on Twitter will return him to the de facto position of assignment editor for our major newsrooms — at least until another public square emerges, which I hope will happen soon.

8 COMMENTS

      • I expect Trump to return to Twitter, in the beginning via links to his posts on his own platform, followed by his own duplications rather than those linked by others. The really fun part will be watching the “progressives” whine about it. Really sucks to be such hypocrites, doesn’t it? Yammer about “fascism” while opposing free expression for everyone but your own whining, smug, arrogant, disconnected bicoastal elitists who hate this country and everything it has ever stood for.

        I am no fan of Trump, who I have always considered a rodeo clown. That said, the more he torments you people, the louder I laugh. To quote Burns, “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” Try it sometime, Marcel. Practice it in front of the shaving mirror.

  1. I don’t understand the distinction between government censorship and that imposed by a monopolistic corporation. There really isn’t that much difference between a government and a monopolist. The monopolist’s power to legitimately restrict goods or services at pleasure isn’t all that different than the government’s monopoly of legitimate violence. Is it okay if the electric company decides to shut off a hospital’s power just because it can? Drawing a sharp distinction between the two is a lawyer’s dodge. Power is power, no matter where lodged.

    The question is ultimately one of the limits on speech regulation. Speech is regulated, even by the state. Anti-fraud laws are a form of speech regulation. So is incitement to violence, obscenity (still regulable in legal principle), trade secret law, most criminal conspiracies, or just plain old slander. And election law.

    We’re still trying to figure out how to protect the body politic from fascism. (Don’t say “populism:” call things by their proper names!) Speech regulation may play a role. I hope we can figure out the principles before it is too late.

  2. Dan, you mention a problem that I wish would be examine more closely and frequently by press critics: the order in which fact and analysis are reported in a story.

    I am not aware of any studies that show how news articles are read. Though I read a lot of news (rarely watch TV news), I often do not read an entire article. Once I read the nut graf, I may decide that I get the reporter’s point, or that the info. is not that valuable. Sometimes I’ll read it to prove the point I’m making here.

    How many other readers, for whatever reasons, stop after the first few grafs? Whether it’s DeSantis’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill or Trump’s accusation of “fake news,” articles are often front-loaded with the lie, the framing, if you will.

    While I was a media consultant, I would often tell clients that the most important parts of an article were, in order: the headline, the lede and the close, which often sums up the reporter’s framing. For example, an article that discusses the Dems strategy for the 2022 elections as a choice between focusing on econ issues or fighting back against the GOP’s culture wars, the reporter may write about how one election was fought by a Dem who highlighted the econ issues. The close might tell you he won. That tells you the reporter’s take.

    • To know what an opinion writer’s point, read the last two or three paragraphs. It works 90%+ of the time. Which applies to most “news” stories too, because “news” and opinion have merged now that the “journalism” we once knew is dead. And yes, it’s also true that the headlines serve a different purpose than they once did.

      Froomkin, in his ongoing personal failure, is operating in the same mode. Ironic, to say the least, that he didn’t make the grade in the new world that he helped create. Has he learned just how expendable he is? Ideologues have little respect for individuals to begin with, and you can double that for leftists. I wonder if ol’ Dan has ever stopped to realize that he should have been a tad bit more careful what he wished for. Nah. Boxer the horse didn’t get it either.

  3. A huge public service to ban Trump, says Froomkin. Well, look on the bright side: failure. Dan was fired by the Washington Post, and couldn’t hold jobs at Huffington Post or The Intercept. Now he runs a website that, on a good day, might get 10 comments. I’d say the sun has set, buddy boy. Better learn how to code.

  4. 1. I’m not sure the media aren’t doing their all to give Trump excessive coverage even while minimizing the existential threat he presents to the nation. Re: the latter: for a single example, Ron De Santos wouldn’t be doing what he’s doing if Trump didn’t show him it is the path to electoral success.
    2. Also wrongly getting the Trump treatment from a fawning, submissive media: Musk.
    As for the threat a Trump return to Twitter possesses: I see it as far less important than Dan does, sorry. It’d just be a couple of boulders added to the mountain of BS that’s the mainstream media. Too, as of now, Trump has a potential windfall if Trump Social goes public. A return to Twitter surely shuts that down. So sure, as of now Trump has to say what he’s saying. Too, Musk is not buying (active present sense). Rather, the Twitter board has agreed to sell, conditioned on realities including a possible better offer as well as a possible wrench thrown into the works by the EU. Treating all this as a done deal is, well, bad reporting.

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