From emergency to active threat: We have again switched settings in our coverage of Donald Trump

When the presidency is turned against the voting system itself, a bitterly fought election becomes an enterprise threatening event.

16 Aug 2020 11:15 pm 31 Comments

On March 19 of this year we alerted readers to a shift in our coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency. We said then that we were moving to an “emergency” setting, which had these consequences for how we would treat Trump as a figure in the news.

    •  To prevent him from misinforming you about matters of life and death — the coronavirus — we will no longer carry his news conferences live.
    •  From all normal press relations with the Trump White House our reporters will withdraw. We will not attend briefings, we won’t gather around him as he departs in his helicopter, and we will not enter into “off the record” arrangements with White House sources.
    • In reporting on his public statements, in addition to asking, “does this fairly represent what he said?” we will ask: is what he said something we should be amplifying?
    • In general, we will shift the focus of our coverage from what Trump is saying to what his government is doing.
    • If we feel we have to report something he said that contains deceptions and falsehoods, we will use the “truth sandwich” method for reporting on false or dubious claims.

Today we are announcing further steps to respond to Trump’s escalations. Democrats, Republicans and voters who call themselves independent are all equally entitled to news coverage that properly gauges the urgency of the threat to American democracy represented by the President’s conduct of the presidency and methods for winning re-election.

If, as a member of the Democratic Party, some future president resorts to similar methods, we will take similar measures in response. For the principle on which we are acting is not reflexive opposition to Donald Trump, or some standing hostility to the Republican Party, but loyalty to democratic institutions, including the surpassing importance of free and fair elections.

When the powers of the Federal government are turned against the reliability of the vote itself, we have crossed an invisible boundary that separates a bitterly fought election from an enterprise-threatening event.

We know this sounds extreme. We wish it were not happening. We understand the risk we take by putting it so starkly: The presidency of Donald Trump is an active threat to American democracy. What do we mean by an active threat? Using the powers he won by election, the incumbent is trying to destroy public confidence in the results of the next election.

For example: “A Wall Street Journal review of Mr. Trump’s tweets dating back to 2012 found more than 110 instances of the president claiming widespread illegal voting, asserting an election or primary was rigged, or that voting by mail would allow for rampant fraud. More than half of those tweets were from this year, with the most of them concerning mail balloting.”

Upon his campaign against the expanded use of mail-in ballots, Trump has constructed a new threat: his sabotaging of the Post Office, a part of the government that is more necessary than ever to this year’s election because of the coronavirus pandemic. Here is how put it:

In an Aug. 13 interview, Trump admitted that he opposes a coronavirus pandemic relief bill crafted by the House Democrats because it includes funding the U.S. Postal Service and state election officials — funding that Trump said is needed to allow the Postal Service to handle an expected surge in mail-in voting.

What do we mean by an active threat? Look again at what is happening:

1. Using the public platform of the presidency, Donald Trump is trying to persuade Americans that their elections cannot be trusted, while standing for election as a candidate himself.

2. Using the formal powers of the presidency, he is trying to make this reckless claim come true by preventing the Post Office from performing reliably as the country turns to mail-in voting.

3. And he is doing this during an election in which a reliable mail service is an imperative because of a public heath crisis that his presidency has failed to contain.

Put 1, 2 and 3 together — examine the way they loop into one another — and it’s more than a civic emergency; it’s a national crisis. News coverage has to reflect that. We can’t just cover these events in bigger type. We have to take commensurate action.

And so we are announcing today these additional measures, beyond the “emergency” setting to which we shifted in March.

Almost all the resources we would have used to cover the party conventions will be redirected to a threat modeling team. This team will be responsible for locating the most likely breakdowns in the election system, and for advising the assignment desk on what deserves attention in our daily report. Everyone in the newsroom will know what our top priorities are in covering the campaign: the biggest threats. There will be no excuse for getting distracted by his tweets.

One of the products of that new team will be a “live” Threat Urgency Index, re-published daily at our site, and in a newsletter you can subscribe to. It will summarize and rank the biggest dangers to a free and fair election by merging assessments of how consequential, how likely, and how immediate each threat is. Right now, for example, the crippling of the postal service would be expected to rank highly on that list. But we don’t know what others will emerge between now and January 20.

One purpose of that index is to provide a counterweight to the confusing onslaught of America-in-crisis headlines, each of which feels like a “big story.” (Usually because it is.) This has been called “flood the zone with shit” by Trump confidant Steve Bannon. It shrinks the importance of any one warning signal by jamming the system with too much signal. When outrageous conduct produces no outrage because people have given up on trying to process it all, the zone flooders have “won.”

The Threat Urgency Index will try to combat this method by adding hierarchy, continuity, composure, clarity. Voters and news consumers will be able to hold us accountable for our coverage of what we publicly declare to be the biggest threats to a free and fair election.

As President Trump becomes a more active danger to American democracy, the rest of the political system has to decide what to do about it. This is one of the levers that journalists have. They are in a position to pressure office-holders and other government officials to go on the record with reactions to what Trump is doing. Pressing for answers can itself can have effects, as we saw last week in Montana.

In a normal campaign year, we assign people to “embed” with the candidates and follow them around as they hit the campaign trail. This time there is no campaign trail because of COVID-19. So we are shifting those resources to a different project: getting key office holders in both parties on the record through relentless questioning designed to hold them accountable for supporting, opposing, or interrogating what Trump is doing to undermine the vote.

In a normal election cycle, we put considerable effort into tracking “the race.” We do this in the belief that people want to know who’s winning and how they’re doing it. But we’re confident we can keep you informed with a simple daily summary of polling averages in key states and nationally. (Sites like and Real Clear Politics speciaize in this kind of information.)

With a deadly pandemic that has not been brought under control, a collapsing economy that is leaving families adrift, and a threat to its democratic institutions coming from the top, the United States is badly in need of people with political courage and practical vision who can inspire others.

And so the resources we would normally devote to state-of-the-race journalism will be redirected: to reporting about people who are providing exceptional leadership, or devising solutions, like the team from Yale and the NBA who this week came up with a coronavirus test that the FDA called “groundbreaking” in its efficiency.

We are well aware of the smirking contempt in which “positive” news is held by the most hard-boiled journalists. But anyone who has listened carefully to readers, viewers and listeners knows that news fatigue and a sense of hopelessness are now serious obstacles to the maintenance of an informed public.

If the United States is to emerge from this crisis with its democracy intact, we are going to need an alert and engaged citizenry. It is unrealistic to expect people to pay attention to an unending stream of crisis news, especially in a nation deliberately polarized by a president sowing chaos, selling hate. There has to be another key in which the country’s song can be played. Instead of who’s ahead in the horse race, we will be reporting on who’s ahead in the human race to get us out of this mess. We feel this is part of a rounded approach to crisis reporting.

Finally, if you want to contribute to our project of combating an active threat with careful journalism, you can become a member of our Red Alert team. You sign up, get verified (real names and addresses only) and then pick among different ways to get involved.

Our first crowdsourcing project will ask Red Alert members to help us test wait times for mail delivery in different parts of the country. Other projects will track the spread of misinformation through Facebook ads and messaging apps. You can sign up to monitor local TV news for us. Know someone we should be reporting on? (Someone who’s ahead in the human race to get us out of this mess?) Red Alert members can suggest stories, and help us diversify our reporting.

So here again are the steps we will be taking:

    • We will shift resources from convention coverage to a threat modeling team.
    • We will generate with that team a Threat Urgency Index, and reorganize around it. That will become a priority list for our day-to-day campaign coverage and for our investigative journalism.
    • The index will also be a published product. You can use it to hold us accountable.
    • We will shift resources from campaign trail coverage to reporting that gets office-holders and govenment officials in both parties on the record in their response to Trump’s active threat to American democracy.
    • We will further shift resources from “who’s ahead?” coverage to profile people with political courage and practical vision who can inspire others.
    • You can become a member of our Red Alert team and participate in crisis coverage by helping us gather information.

In our March note to readers we said this: “Even this far into his term, it is still a bit of a shock to be reminded that the single most potent force for misinforming the American public is the current president of the United States.”

A few days ago, Stephen Collinson of CNN wrote something similar: “The most dangerous threat to the integrity of November’s election is coming from the man sworn to protect it, the President of the United States.”

That is an escalation. Trump is an active threat. This has consequences for our journalism. How can it not?

Don’t be surprised if you get another of these notes.

I need to clarify what kind of text this is. I am not a news organization, just a lone writer, and a journalism professor who is also a press critic. Since 2015, I have written a lot about the problem of covering Donald Trump. This post is an extension of that work. It is written in the voice of an editor’s note “announcing” a new policy. (A similar note was published in March, 2020. This is part two.) But I am not a news executive within a company of journalists, and I don’t want to give the impression that a news organization has made this kind of shift. That has yet to happen. So consider this my statement of what editors in the national media could and should be doing right now. Call it press criticism in a different key. That means you can’t sign up for the Red Alert team or subscribe to the Urgent Threat Index. Those are my ideas, awaiting pick up by the American press. —JR


Timely and well-reasoned, Professor Rosen.

As a retired network radio news anchor, I often think back to big events I covered, like the Iraq war, and marvel that even in the midst of the event, neither I nor anyone else realized the gravity of what we were living through. It’s the same now.

Harris Meyer says:

Well said. The same could have been said about the 2016 election.

C.M. Lundstrom says:

Is the 24th word we’re, or were?

Thanks, I fixed that.

Damien Raffa says:

Thank you for your service to this nation and planet. Typo in first bullet: “cornona”.

Barry Kiefl says:

Is there an extra word here: “ Pressing for answers can itself can have effects, as we saw last week in Montana.”

Very thought provoking. While the media won’t divert resources from the ‘horse race’ because journalists believe, probably correctly, that’s what readers/viewers want, I sense that your model is having an effect on Trump coverage.

I agree with the assessment and recommendations and hope they will be adopted by news organizations.

Let’s hope every editor in the country sees this. My only suggestion would be to describe ways in which the news media can further cooperate with each other In the gathering and sharing of news, coordinating editorials and more in addition to the steps already outlined.

It’s fascinating to think that, suddenly, the U.S. Postal service needs to take away letter boxes, has to do away with many sorting machines, and the President publicizes what he feels are the Post Office’s failings, as he just generally casts doubt upon the adequacy of our postal service.

Now, all that suddenly happens after three-and-a-half years in Office. Here, on the cusp of perhaps the most important election the history of America, all this damage to our postal service the President finds to be imperative.


thank you for this, and for all your work on what reporting needs to look like. A question – to pitch in as part of your Red Alert team, is there a signup? The link that looked like it would be went to a WaPo story. (Also, if you see some advantage in getting some of this across in comics, happy to take a stab at it Thanks for your work in these times, Nick

I added this to the note in italics at the end.

So consider this my statement of what editors in the national media could and should be doing right now. Call it press criticism in a different key. That means you can’t sign up for the Red Alert team or subscribe to the Urgent Threat Index. Those are my ideas, awaiting pick up by the American press.

ah, sorry – i missed that note at the end. Well, the comics-making offer still stands, and should the opportunity to pitch in arise, count on me. Thank you

Maureen O'Brien says:

Necessary and timely warning. If only the media had the foresight to set a threat assessment team in place right now! I’m desperate for information and up against a wall of blather about the lineup for the Dems’ convention. FYI, I noticed two missing subjects and one other spelling/error. I’ll go back and highlight if you want.

Richard Tracey says:

I, too, would join a red team if one were recruiting. BTW you are a very good writer, clear and deliberate (I teach advanced college writing, so I know it when I see it).

Thank you, Richard. Sorry to say, there is no Red Alert team. I made it up.

Barry Fishler says:

This is really good. I would suggest, however, that the clarifying note at the end should be at the beginning. That would prevent the misunderstanding that its current placement is forced to undo.

I considered it, and rejected it.

My heart sank when I read the final paragraph. Perhaps this is your reason to reject that change. You raised my Hopes so much! I would be willing to print and deliver to the local journalists I know. Perhaps you CAN have a call to action and get this out there

Professor Rosen,

Thanks for these useful suggestions, and for the others you’ve offered in the past. I was a news editor for 30 years before the Great Collapse retired me early, and I agree that our industry’s norms need to adapt to current threats.

I noticed that “Urgency” is “Ugency” on first reference. This and a few subsequent errors might easily be caught by a spell-checker. (I can understand possible reluctance to rely on such a crutch, because I use it only grudgingly myself, but it’s a good habit.)

I mention this not to nitpick but because misspellings could hinder those who search your writings for a remembered phrase, and Threat Urgency Index might certainly be one of them.

Professor Rosen. Thank you for this post. It is spot on. It is surely going to be the most important one of the day for anyone paying attention to what’s been happening in our country. I plan to share it as far and wide as I am able and hope others do likewise.
Sorry that you are not signing up recruits but I think there will be thousands ready to join the Red Alert team once it forms. Count me in when that happens.

I loved your closing paragraph:

“Don’t be surprised if you get another of these notes.”

That in my opinion is just what the doctor ordered. You will be at the top of my reading list every morning for the next 78 days and all the way up to January 20th.

Trump’s words on Twitter and in public are the official word of the Office of the President. Since his job is the most powerful on the planet, they carry weight no matter how much ridiculous or dishonest comes out of his mouth.

Journalists charged with covering the president should report on what he says but, just as importantly, report on the veracity of what he’s saying. If he’s trafficking in lies, then it should be so stated, explaining what his lies are. This makes reporters’ jobs more difficult, because he lies all the time, but that is the job.

I do not like that I can’t sign up for Red Alert membership.

DITTO! From the time I moved to the us in 2001, and saw the horrible state of journalism, esp horse race coverage, lack of degree questioning of those in power, ignoring much of what is ACTUALLY HAPPENING in favor of what someone said, rolling out people only if they wrote a book instead of doing the work to FIND the most effective people who are getting stuff done and reaching out to them (Eg your Yale scientist examples), false equivalence reporting etc etc etc

What I’ve been hoping for ALL THESE YEARS is a citizen version of your red alert that pressures journalism to change by nipping at journalists heels constantly over these failures

Please be our leader and setup the red alert! Make a list of the journalistic errors we should chase and help us work out how to get our messages through. ..An “indivisible“ for journalistic change. I used to try – eg call into the news desk and complain right after a misleading news broadcast, tweet a reporter, but I was a lone voice and burned out.

Mobilize us based on this piece!

How can we help expand your message to MSM, please?

p.s. I tweeted out most of your essay.

Joel Richmond says:

Hopefully there will be news organizations who look upon your post as a guide to transition into the emergency mode you describe above. Until that occurs, I would urge the White House press corps and those who attend pressers held by Trump or McEnany to ask the difficult questions. To be relentless and hold them accountable in much the way “your staff’ ” would concerning the efforts to undermine the election. If its a lie, if it makes no sense and is coming out of the mouths of the President and/or his press secretary, they should be confronted in real time.

Tom Long says:

Professor Rosen accurately describes the war on American democracy with his wake-up call, in a bold-faced appeal to the broad base of moderates on both sides of the aisle.

Trump and his cult followers are out to destroy election law, tradition, and truth. Unfortunately, objective reportage chronicling the unprecedented output of fact-free tweets and sound bites are not designed for conventional newsrooms, and struggle to hold the interest of the public during a busy election year.

Like the revolutionaries against the British, those who wish to deconstruct the administrative state have taken up devious tactics to reach their goal.

Those few miscreants who would steal the Presidential election from the people by thumbing their nose at oversight, tradition, and constitutionality have groomed an audience of angry and disaffected who treat the daily chaos as reality TV.

This battle deserves a national response but will be battled by the collective decisions of countless news organizations. In this elevated environment (Active Threat), I would suggest more circumspection in determining newsworthiness. If we applied J-school instead of Hollywood standards, and focus on actions instead of words, the public might get the real message in time to make a difference in November.

Folks, we are the Red Alert team — all of us. We can work to get all out to vote and assist them to overcome the obstacles. We can denounce. We can be on the lookout for misinformation and disinformation and try to dispel it. We can be ready to go beyond our comfort zones, whatever that may mean. There are a lot of us. Sometimes when we move, our leaders follow.

Good stuff, Jay (as usual). In addition to this, the press badly needs to report on how we got into this situation. I’m talking about the vast network of 501(c)3 “education” organizations under the direction of the Council for National Policy (CNP). It’s all laid out in Anne Nelson’s powerful investigative book, Shadow Network. They all need to be put on the defensive.

Ned Farra says:

“The presidency of Donald Trump is an active threat to American democracy.”

My concern is that the media is ignoring other severe threats to American democracy, particularly at the local and state levels. The biggest problem of voter suppression is that voters don’t think their vote matters, that it won’t make a difference. And that’s because local leaders often work together with public sector unions to block, water down, or simply not implement reforms that they promise voters. That’s why there has been such little movement in education and police reform in this country for decades, because democracy has essentially been blocked by city leaders, leading to the disenfranchisement of vulnerable communities.

How will the media help return democracy to cities? Will they hold properly hold mayors to account? Will the light finally be shined on public sector unions and collective bargaining rights and how they block democracy in partnership with mayors? Will there be an investigation on how damaged democracy in cities like Chicago, Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco and beyond is driving out the black population from these cities of economic mobility?

Glen Tomkins says:

I heartily agree with all five of the measures specified in your first paragraph, but I question why you have not taken similar measures with every president.

However much Trump is an unusual and worse threat, none of the practices you stopped in March of this year were ever healthy and sound ways to treat any past president or any other public official. Access journalism is inherently corrupt and abusive, no matter whom you trade your integrity to in order to get the access.