There’s an old saying used to indoctrinate new Army recruits that there are three ways to do anything: a right way, a wrong way and an Army way. (They were supposed to always do it the Army way.)
Young journalists receive (or used to, anyway) a similar, if less explicit, indoctrination that teaches them to do things the journalism way, without asking themselves whether it’s also the right way. The old version of the journalism way, the way that I came up as an ink-stained wretch, has broken down quite a bit in the age of the blog and the podcast and even of Fox News, which is part of the “mainstream media,” but not really, not in the old way.
Still, at a big news event covered by the mainstream, most of the mainstream folks pretty much agree on what questions should be asked and what parts of the answers are “interesting” or “important” enough to be included in the story. (“Interesting” and “important” are huge in the norms of journalism, almost as if there is some definitive way to define “interesting” or “important” in the context of a complicated news story.)
The latest Big Disrupter of the norms is the Donald. Donald Trump lacks the usual credentials of a presidential candidate, but that’s not a sin. Abe Lincoln had the weakest conventional résumé of any president. Trump is startlingly immodest, but what the heck, the public pose of modesty by many typical politicians is probably carefully constructed based on the belief — obviously not shared by Trump — that voters dislike blowhard braggarts. You can call Trump boorish — I have — and I think, all other considerations being equal, we’re better off with a president with decent manners.
But I could forgive his manners and his ego if he would do the main thing I most require of a candidate. He won’t take positions, not real ones, on most issues. As best I know, his campaign has so far posted one position paper, on “immigration,” which raises quite a few questions that he won’t answer.
(For example, it was in this paper that he introduced the idea of ending “birthright citizenship,” which is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. The two sentences devoted to this idea in his position paper don’t acknowledge the obvious problem that birthright citizenship appears pretty clearly to be guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. Here’s the rather clear sentence from the amendment itself [which means, from the U.S. Constitution itself]: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The Supreme Court, in a landmark 1898 case, interpreted that to mean what it appears to plainly say, that a baby born on U.S. soil, even if to noncitizen parents, is a U.S. citizen, forever. When Trump is told that he is advocating something that would be unconstitutional, he tends to say that he knows some very smart lawyers who disagree, and there the matter dies, with Trump apparently winning admirers among nativist Americans with a position that has almost no chance of becoming law.)
Trump and norms of journalism
Still, Trump is a big story or, as he might modestly put it, “huge. The hugest ever.” You can’t ignore a guy who’s leading in the polls, but it’s truly a challenge to corral Trump coverage into the old norms. He won’t play the part of a normal candidate.
He is engaged, at any given moment, in 20 or 30 feuds with his opponents or critics or even with journalists — most notably in recent Trump lore, with Megyn Kelly of Fox News for asking him allegedly unfair questions at the big debate.
And before you know it, instead of insisting that he answer some of the obvious, basic questions raised by his half-baked policy ideas, you are writing about Trump’s statements about which parts of Kelly’s body were allegedly emitting blood at which moment in Trump’s metaphorical imagination.
One of the latest examples was captured beautifully by a guy named Leon Wolf. Wolf is not a normed-up journalist. He blogs for Red State (which is a righty blog that doesn’t ♥ the Donald). Wolf’s recent “diary” entry, about a Trump media event, therefore has the advantage of freeing him to make observations about both Trump’s skills as a disrupter and the journalist’s difficulty in dealing with it. It begins:
Donald Trump just held a press conference prior to a speech in Iowa which was – and I say this without exaggeration — the most bizarre thing I have seen in a lifetime of following politics. It was at once an illustration of why the media fixates on him, and also why the other candidates in the race cannot deal with him.
He opened the conference by yelling at Univision anchor Jorge Ramos, who he claimed asked a question without being called on. He continued to yell at Ramos at some length about being out of turn, then turned to one of his campaign staffers, nodded, and pointed at Ramos, whereupon the staffer removed Ramos from the conference. (Note: I would have zero problem on principle with throwing Ramos out of a press conference on the merits).
The next reporter’s question, naturally, was, “Why did you have him thrown out?” Amazingly, Trump responded to this question, I’m not kidding, by answering, “I didn’t have him thrown out, you’ll have to ask security, whoever they are.” When reporters pressed him with the obvious fact that the person who had him removed was on his staff (he appeared to be wearing a Trump button even, but I can’t swear to that), he immediately changed his tune to say that it was because the reporter was a “highly emotional person,” with no mention of the fact that 30 seconds earlier he had been denying that he had Ramos thrown out at all.
As you might expect, coverage of the event has been dominated by the opening ejection of Ramos, which feeds into about seven other of the currently hot Trump-the-crazy-scourge-of-Latinos narratives, but most of the coverage showed little interest in the fact that Trump’s own explanation of how Ramos’ ejection had come about had changed within one minute from I-had-nothing-to-do-with-it to I-had a-valid-reason-to-do-it. In his own summation of how this illustrates the Trump Phenomenon, Red Stater Wolf writes:
When a politician goofs once, it’s easy for that to get stuck in the feedback loop of the media and other candidates.
Watching Donald Trump speak and answer questions, though, is like watching a billion targets appear in the sky all at once, for a political opponent. Each thing he says is so bizarre, or ill informed, or demonstrably false, or unpresidential in tone or character, that it becomes impossible to know which target to lock on to or focus on. And to the extent that he makes a policy statement, it is so hopelessly vague and ludicrous that it’s impossible to know where to begin, at least within the context of the 30-second soundbite that the modern political consumer requires (and chances are, he will say something diametrically opposed to it before the press conference is over anyway).
Donald Trump is the political equivalent of chaff, a billion shiny objects all floating through the sky at once, ephemeral, practically without substance, serving almost exclusively to distract from more important things — yet nonetheless completely impossible to ignore.
By the way, from the nothing-is-simple department, I should mention in fairness to Trump that later in the same event, Ramos was allowed back in. And he had an extensive exchange with Trump. Ramos has been called the “Walter Cronkite of Latino America.” But he didn’t behave much like Cronkite at this event. After he asked Trump a question and Trump started to answer, Ramos kept interrupting within a few syllables of Trump’s answer to argue with it. I can’t believe I’m about to write this, but Trump seemed extremely patient on this round, which went on for quite a while. But nothing was accomplished because Ramos kept interrupting.