It sometimes happens in diplomacy that one country has to say to another: “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. You have gone too far.” And so it suspends diplomatic relations.
In 2012 the government of Canada announced that it would suspend diplomatic relations with Iran. “Canada views the government of Iran as the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today,” said the foreign minister.
Journalists charged with covering him should suspend normal relations with the presidency of Donald Trump, which is the most significant threat to an informed public in the United States today.
That is my recommendation.
I began making this point on the third day of his presidency, January 22, 2017, when I said the press should send interns to the White House briefing room. Normal practice would not be able to cope with the political style of Donald Trump, which incorporates a hate movement against journalists.
“Send the interns” means our major news organizations don’t have to cooperate with this. They don’t have to lend talent or prestige to it. They don’t have to be props. They need not televise the spectacle live (CNN didn’t carry Spicer’s rant) and they don’t have to send their top people. They can “switch” systems: from inside-out, where access to the White House starts the story engines, to outside-in, where the action begins on the rim, in the agencies, around the committees, with the people who are supposed to obey Trump but have doubts… The press has to become less predictable. It has to stop functioning as a hate object. This means giving something up.
So that’s one way to suspend normal relations: send the interns. On MSNBC June 12, Rachel Maddow described another. She said that frequent viewers of her show may have noticed a pattern:
I don’t go out of my way to play tape of the president speaking. Nor do I tend to spend too much time parsing whatever the latest quote is from him. That is not out of any animus on my part, it’s just that the president very frequently says things that aren’t true. He admits that he says things that aren’t true. He calls it, you know, hyperbole, but he lies. And I feel like on this show I’d like you to be able to trust me to give you true information. Because I generally feel like I can’t trust what purports to be information from this president, I just try to do the news without words from him, most of the time.
Normally, the president is quoted more than any other public figure, and clips of him speaking are ubiquitous in television news. Maddow told her viewers that she had suspended this practice because, more likely than not, the president’s words would only misinform them. Every president needs to be fact-checked. This one doesn’t care if what he says is true. That’s extreme, and it calls for a response.
The opposing proposition was stated well by Chris Wallace, of Fox News:
“Anything that a president would say — even if it was libelous or scandalous — it’s the president talking, and I think you report it,” said Chris Wallace, the “Fox News Sunday” host who moderated this year’s third presidential debate. “Under any definition, it’s news, whether it’s sensible or not, factual or not, productive or not.”
A middle-ground would be this: what the president says is neither automatically newsworthy nor automatically suspect. Rather, it has to be judged in context. Which sounds super-reasonable. Who can be against “context” and case-by-case judgment? But here’s the context: bad actor, cannot be given the benefit of the doubt, no matter what the case is.
“How,” asked Chuck Todd on Meet the Press June 17, “can we believe a president who routinely says things that are provably false?” Instead of treating these questions as unsolvable riddles, Chuck Todd could… suspend normal relations. For Meet the Press, that might mean: don’t accept as guests the people the White House sends out as defenders of the provably false (especially Kellyanne Conway.) If Trump himself is willing to sit down with Chuck Todd, fine. Take him on over his many falsehoods. But no surrogates or fog machines unless they are willing to correct the president.
The American press corps is not like the government of Canada, which can speak with a single voice. Thousands of people working for hundreds of newsrooms cannot change their practices in synch with one another. But they can all decide, “This is extreme. We cannot accept this. This has gone too far.” And then make a break with normal practice.
For the Washington Post it might be declining to participate in so-called background briefings. For NPR, it might be refusing to report false claims by the President unless they are served as a “truth sandwich,” a suggestion recently made by Brian Stelter and Margaret Sullivan, interpreting the work of George Lakoff. For CNN, never going live to a Trump event — on the grounds that you will inevitably broadcast falsehoods if you do — would be a good start.
Suspend normal relations. It’s up to the journalists who cover Trump to decide how they will do it. The important thing is that they do it. And then announce what they did, to get others thinking about their own steps. In this way the sovereign state of journalism can take action, and show, as the Canadian prime minister said recently, that it will “not be pushed around.”