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How Trump’s norm-breaking behavior is affecting journalistic norms

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump speaking to reporters from the South Lawn of the White House on Friday.

In addition to running against Joe Biden as a closet socialist and a doddering old fool, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign will undoubtedly rely heavily on running against the mainstream media as liberally biased against him.

In making such an argument, he might be aided by paragraphs, such as these, from atop a quadruple-bylined story in the New York Times on Saturday:

Even by President Trump’s standards, it was a rampage: He attacked a government whistle-blower who was telling Congress that the coronavirus pandemic had been mismanaged. He criticized the governor of Pennsylvania, who has resisted reopening businesses. He railed against former President Barack Obama, linking him to a conspiracy theory and demanding he answer questions before the Senate about the federal investigation of Michael T. Flynn.

And Mr. Trump lashed out at Joseph R. Biden Jr., his Democratic challenger. In an interview with a sympathetic columnist, Mr. Trump smeared him as a doddering candidate who “doesn’t know he’s alive.” The caustic attack coincided with a barrage of digital ads from Mr. Trump’s campaign mocking Mr. Biden for verbal miscues and implying that he is in mental decline.

That was all on Thursday.

Far from a one-day onslaught, it was a climactic moment in a weeklong lurch by Mr. Tru​mp back to ​​the darkest tactics that defined his rise to political power. Even those who have grown used to Mr. Trump’s conduct in office may have found themselves newly alarmed by the grim spectacle of a sitting president deliberately stoking the country’s divisions and pursuing personal vendettas in the midst of a crisis that has Americans fearing for their lives and livelihoods.

If the Times wanted to defend such a piece according to the old norms, it might note that the piece was labeled a “political memo,” perhaps something more analytical than straight reporting.

But the reality of Trump’s impact on the norms of journalism is much bigger than such an explanation would cover. Norms are complex, evolving things. It used to be a norm that a presidential candidate who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by the pussy would be forced to leave the race. It was actually a growing norm that running for president required you to release your tax returns. The old norms would have prevented Trump from getting around the annoyance of the confirmation process by relying indefinitely on “acting’ Cabinet officials.

Trump has shattered pretty much all the norms of “presidential” conduct. Richard Nixon at his most desperate never acted like this, and Trump does this stuff so many times a day that it almost loses its power to shock.


Lots of presidents have shaded the truth, even lied, but never with the volume and shamelessness of Trump. It used to be a big deal for the mainstream media to accuse the president of lying. Now? “Lying” is too lame a term for what this president does to any standard of truthfulness. And the same for civility and any measure of respect for those who oppose him, criticize him or even disagree with anything he says or does. If the media is the “fake media,” what should they call him?

Of course, the media don’t generally call him names. It seems to me they haven’t completely figured out how to deal with such a steady volume of lies and vitriol from the Oval Office. But the tone of the passage above suggests to me that even the Times, which symbolizes and defines the journalistic establishment, understands that something other than the old norms is necessary to cover this president.

It used to be a big deal even to suggest that the president had said something inaccurate, and it was beyond imaginable to call his statements “lies.” Now it’s just another Thursday in Trumplandia.

Is that media “bias?”

We would need to work hard at redefining “bias” so that it refers to saying that lies are lies, racist tropes are racist tropes, and egomania is just being honest about how one sees oneself.

Norms are just norms. They have a certain power as long as they are respected, and when they are disrespected it turns out to be a very open question as to whether they can be enforced, or ever re-established.

By the way, if you would like to read the full Times analysis piece quoted at the top of this screed, it’s viewable here. It doesn’t mention the word “norms.” But it is full of evidence of how norms are changing, both as they apply to presidents and to journalism.

Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Barry Tungseth on 05/18/2020 - 09:18 am.

    Trump has got to go. His 4th grade school yard bully tactics and name calling are sick to the least. Trump has created more swamp, and he intends to create more just by his recent actions alone. Time to remove the head clown from the GOP clown car….Take Moscow Mitch along with to please.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/18/2020 - 09:45 am.

    The other precedent that Trump will set is that he will be the first President to go to jail after his term in office and he has a very good idea on the likelihood of this. He is an animal backed into a corner fighting for his life: nothing will be spared in his fight to hang on.

    I am not the legal expert that some of our commenters are, but it seems that his crimes done in concert with Michael Cohen, who already is in jail for his role, can be avoided by the statue of limitations if he wins re-election.

    The Mueller report redactions frequently reference “redacted due to on going investigation.” The NY Second District seems to have multiple on going investigations that once Trump is not protected by the office of the President will come home to roost.

    I’m sure that our prison system mental health professionals will be waiting at the front gate to begin their work…

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/18/2020 - 01:42 pm.

      I’m not the first person to point out that Trump uses standard mob boss procedure:
      he never explicitly orders a hit — his people know what he wants and do it.
      That’s why there is no explicit written link between Trump and Cohen — Cohen knew what Trump wanted done and did it. Trump clearly benefited, but there’s no direct evident so far of his direct involvement.
      That’s why the financial dealings are so important — they are most likely to leave a recorded trail.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/18/2020 - 09:57 am.

    My grandson, now 8, but only 4 when Trump began his presidential term, displays quite a bit more emotional maturity and intellectual honesty – not to mention a more varied and sophisticated vocabulary – than Mr. Trump. For what it’s worth, I’d say Eric’s characterization of the mainstream media as “uncertain” about how to deal with a serial liar and sociopath in the nation’s highest elected office is an accurate one.

    There seems little to be gained, and even in these dark times, much to be lost, by descending into the name-calling gutter in which the Trump resides.

    That said, and speaking as an old guy who’s read many an article over several decades that’s critical of a sitting President, whether Republican or Democrat, I see nothing wrong with the mainstream press pointing out, quite correctly, that Mr. Trump is a serial liar, nearly infantile in his insecurity (and thus, boastfulness), and something of a sociopath regarding his fellow Americans. Television news, in particular, whether of the faux-news variety of Fox or the occasionally-hysterical “breaking news” variety of CNN, spends far, far too much time on the bright, shiny object that is the latest Trumpian outrage. The fact that he routinely finds neoNazis and other outright bullies to be “fine people,” and routinely dismisses the traumas of people, mostly of color, that he obviously considers to be his inferiors, simply confirms his position as among the most bigoted of executives, public or private.

    I’ve read several thoughtful pieces on paper and online lamenting the destruction of behavioral norms on the part of Mr. Trump, virtually all of them suggesting that, once broken, norms are rarely reestablished. The authors of those articles may be correct, but my personally-conservative hope is that they are not, and that, once Trump and his slimy sycophants have been removed from positions of influence for which they are, in most cases, both unqualified and undeserving, some modicum of civil behavior and language will return to at least the public behavior of national figures, even national Republicans.

    Until then, when Trump behaves as a child, or a traitor, or both, or in some other way demonstrates that he should never have been elevated to a position of responsibility where his incompetence and prejudices are put on public display, I hope the mainstream media will do what I think most Americans want them to do – point out bigotry, cronyism, ignorance and dishonesty among government policies and officials when they see those and other forms of malfeasance happening. Whether the President likes or agrees with what they have to say should make little difference.

    If truth-telling makes one a “liberal,” then I’m all for a “liberal”” media, and if accuracy makes a news outlet “fake,” then let’s have more “fake news.”

    • Submitted by Bruce Brothers on 05/18/2020 - 11:16 am.

      Excellent response that I’m sure speaks for many of us who are mired in the cesspool that is Trump’s methodology and impatient, frustrated and angry because of it.

  4. Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/18/2020 - 10:17 am.

    You’re speaking of two sets of norms here.

    Trump is allowed to shatter the multitude of political norms because the Repub party in Congress (and the Supreme Court) permits it. Their acquiescence is just another nail in the coffin of the failed Constitution, whose Framers imagined that the leaders of the various branches could be expected to protect the functions and duties of their particular branch. With the advent of the “conservative” movement, their tribalism trumps their supposed institutional duties.

    Trump is able to occupy the darkest corners of tactics because that has been the path the conservative movement has been on for decades, and a quasi-fascist like Trump is just the logical endpoint of where the movement was always headed. Trump’s loathsome behavior is obviously exactly what the mass of “conservative” voters want (and clamor) to see.

    There’s no way to return them to actually wanting “civility”; they thrive on spite and vitriol at this point, and there’s no going back. As Charles Pierce recently wrote: “[Trump] exists in the mold and rot, feeds on it, and tells his supporters it’s fine dining.”

    The other norms you refer to are those of journalism. It may be that the corporate media is starting to call a spade a spade with the horrendously unqualified, endlessly divisive Hitler-figure of Donald Trump. We’ll see, as we watch how they deal with Trump’s cavalcade of lies regarding the (admittedly feeble) Biden.

    Given that the (almost entirely white) 46% who voted for Trump seek out their own bubble of “conservative” alternate reality “news”, it is hard to see why they care how the “lib’rul media” covers the news of the day–they are immune to anything resembling reality. One supposes that the “lib’rul media” nonsense exists just to fuel their spite, rage and sense of victimization.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/18/2020 - 11:04 am.

    As always I am bamboozled on how ~ 42% +/- of the voting population is susceptible and acceptable to this type of behavior. We really are a country in deep trouble when our moral compass is off by that much, chaos is not our friend.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/18/2020 - 12:27 pm.

      After his election defeat the 42% will quickly shrink to 15% or so who will spend the rest of their days sending him birthday cakes with files and hacksaw blades hidden inside. The other 27%?


      Donald Trump?

      The name rings a bell, but I can’t put a face to it…

  6. Submitted by David Markle on 05/18/2020 - 11:43 am.

    Imagine the media–and the public–reaction if any other president had fired one inspector general after another. Has a large percentage of the public become civically illiterate?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/18/2020 - 12:20 pm.

      I think your question can be answered by acknowledging that Donald Trump is President of the United States..

      It’s not just that the public has become civically illiterate, it’s the fact that their ignorance is abetted, if not encouraged, by the party in power. An electorate that is willing to stand by and do, at most, nothing because they see a President who voices the same hatreds gives the Republicans a free pass to enact their agenda (which, if you get right down to it, would not be all that popular if it were put to a referendum).

      I don’t like to throw the “N” word around lightly, but I’ve been reading the late Joachim Fest’s biography of Hitler and have come across some stunning parallels. Before the election, Hitler and his party stopped being specific about policies, but relied on emotional appeals to enthusiastic crowds. Hitler thrived on the adoration of the masses, but details of what he would do once he came to power seemed, according to his intimates, to bore him. It was all about getting the cheers and winning.

      Anyone see an analogy?

      • Submitted by David Markle on 05/18/2020 - 04:55 pm.

        Yes. On a hopeful note, I think a significant number of Trump votes were actually anti-Hillary. That situation will change, come November.

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/19/2020 - 10:04 am.

        Both men were obviously political demagogues, and messianic narcissists. They were both poorly educated ignoramuses who discounted expertise and relied on their “intuition”. They both were woefully unqualified to be elevated to the position of national leadership, having never held elective office in their lives. They both insanely imagined that the were so superior that there was nowhere else to start but the top.

        Obviously both men rose to power by flattering the credulous Volk and demonizing some helpless “other”, a largely powerless minority ethnic group which was tarred with (somehow) dragging the nation down–Jews with Hitler, non-white immigrants (mostly Latinos) with Trump. Hitler destroyed an elective democracy and (illegally) seized permanent power, while Trump has so far only joked about doing so. Both men were proud sadists as well, reveling in gratuitous cruelty as evidence of “strength”.

        Of course, since both men are anti-democratic authoritarian nationalists there were bound to be parallels. To deny it is to deny the nose on one’s face.

    • Submitted by Annette Caruthers on 05/18/2020 - 12:53 pm.


  7. Submitted by Steve Roth on 05/18/2020 - 12:36 pm.

    Through all of this its more than ever important to remember another history-making and norm-shattering part of all of this: that the GOP has enabled, coddled, and encouraged Trump, virtually every step of the way.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 05/18/2020 - 04:09 pm.

    The media are using too many words to describe Trump’s attacks. Any specific charges are made up, any evidence is false. Here is a format that gets at the nitty gritty.

    Today’s Trump targets – name of people, institution of ideals.
    New to his target list.
    Average daily targets – 2020, 2017-2019

    It is like doing daily measures of sewage flow. Call out Ann ways where he sets a record of new names and total names.

    One also might keep track of his “creative” use of disparaging nicknames.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/19/2020 - 09:12 am.

      Your right Joel, I think A #1 worlds greatest JERK should do it! He definitely is the High Emperor of Jerkdom!

  9. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 05/18/2020 - 05:19 pm.

    This President is unlike any before him, especially in the volume of words spoken to the press and to the Twitterverse. If my new neighbor is unlike any I’ve had before, how does this mean that I need to change my norms? Why does journalism need it’s norms to change?

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/18/2020 - 08:38 pm.

    An interesting parallel between Trump the business man and Trump the politician:

    If you look at Fred Trump’s wealth passed to Donald, he could have just given it to Charles Schwab and moved to a Caribbean island and done nothing for the rest of his life and he would now be far richer than he is now.

    If you look at the great Obama economy inherited by Trump, an NSC office charged with pandemic response, a national plan for pandemic response, an CDC infectious disease specialist embedded in China’s CDC, genuine experts like Ernest Muniz at Energy traded for the likes of Rick Perry and you can see that like his business career, his political career results would have been a lot better if he just went into hiding and did nothing for four years.

    All neatly summed up by Republican consultant Rick Wison’s book title:

    “Everything Trump Touches Dies”

  11. Submitted by Mike Chrun on 05/19/2020 - 08:41 am.

    Personally, I think it’s about time that traditional media stopped avoiding the ugliness of this character in a futile attempt to try to hold onto professional standards. Then instead of seeing “norm-breaking behavior” used in the headline of this column, we’d have more more accurate terms like, “dangerous, crazy, cruel, lying, sociopathic, etc.” Enough with the euphemisms.

  12. Submitted by Ron Quido on 05/19/2020 - 10:00 pm.

    All pretty tepid compared to the 1800s and early 1900s when newspapers were aligned with one or the other major political party and viciously attacked opponents.

  13. Submitted by William Duncan on 05/20/2020 - 08:12 am.

    Here is Glenn Greenwald from the Intercept, one of the few serious journalists as skeptical of “liberal” corporate media as he is of Trump and Fox, discussing the Flynn case and Russiagate generally. If Trump did to Biden what the Obama Admin and the FBI did to Trump, the media would call it criminal behavior from an autocrat trying to destroy democracy.

    But the NYT/WaPo/CNN/MSNBC invested three years overblowing Russiagate trying to take down Trump, so anti-constitutional, criminal behavior from Obama/FBI becomes saving democracy from itself.

    It is possible to think both Trump and Obama (and Biden) are just different kinds of monsters…

    • Submitted by Richard Owens on 05/20/2020 - 09:44 am.

      Mueller documented 272 contacts between Trump surrogates and Russian nationals. People are in jail over some of it. Facebook fraudsters from the Russian hacking agency have been indicted for their manipulation of our election.

      Many attempts to establish “back channels” by different Trump personnel, some as elaborate as flying to remote islands to meet Russian oligarchs and some actual calls to the Russian Embassy explicitly to make a “back channel” is what Flynn was up to.

      Career diplomatic officers with distinguished records went on the record to explain how the Trump organization was mouthing and supporting Russian goals in Ukraine.

      Have you read or seen the Moscow Project? It spells it out.

      Glen Greenwald has done some good journalistic work, especially exposing the Iraq invasion’s ugliest features. That said, his efforts with Edward Snowden and Wikileaks have seen him drifting toward Alex Jones.

      I can’t believe you think Mueller’s work absolved Trump.

      To see Obama and Trump (and now Biden) as comparable “monsters”. You discredit yourself with such outrageous dissonance.

      You also gratuitously discredit the Obama Presidency, when most Americans would love to have him back right now. He is the last politician one would expect to hear being called a “monster”.

      Is this just an advanced case of cynicism, or are you trying to express the views of an anarchist?

      • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/20/2020 - 10:25 am.

        He’s simply justifying the abdication of one’s civic responsibility, and encouraging others to do the same. This was a forgone conclusion.

        As the famous quote goes: “we had to destroy the village in order to save it!”

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 05/21/2020 - 08:04 am.

        To Richard and BK,

        I could write a short book about why all three men are monsters, Trump being more overt, while Biden and Obama put on a much better show, especially Obama. It is common for supporters of all three to use the phrase “voting for the lesser of two evils.” That implies one is voting for evil, and monsters generally do “evil”.

        As for Anarchism as a pejorative, political anarchist theory, most of it, is just a discussion about real democracy, of power distributed among the people, the people owners of their own production and labor, rather than control of society by elite. There is a reason Capitalists, Communists and Nazis set aside their differences to destroy the 1936 Spanish Revolution, which was a transfer of power to working people, or rather working people taking back their power.

        There is a great deal more to civic duty than voting every four years for evil.

      • Submitted by William Duncan on 05/21/2020 - 09:14 am.

        I just spent about twenty minutes on The Moscow Project website. It is proof IMHO that repeating a false narrative until it is “true” is not just a province of the GOP. “Russiagate” as it has become known to those of us who recognize in it a kind of Neo-McCarthyism, is taking the proverbial mole hill and calling it a mountain, as a means to destroy political opponents on the Right and lock down on dissidence on the Left.

        Here is Consortium News, an anti-war website focusing on the abuse of power in Washington and Wall Street, and on the Intelligence/War complex that is well beyond accountability, reliable the past four years for calling out how so many “bombshells revelations to take out a president” turned out to be little more than firecrackers.

        • Submitted by Richard Owens on 05/21/2020 - 05:52 pm.

          You discredit yourself with such outrageous dissonance.

          I would like to know your motive here.

        • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/22/2020 - 03:56 pm.

          Those links would indicate that Mr McGovern is now about 98% fulmination and 2% information…

        • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/23/2020 - 10:14 am.

          So why then is Trump so adverse to letting the Muller report out in full view? If its a nothing burger why not let it out to the press they will have a field day! The dem’s will be admonished for the hoax and Trump will get his enormous voter turnout for the election and win by the biggest margin ever. Just think of the turn out for the inauguration, especially since the C-virus will disappear after Nov 3.

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