Donald Trump is not an easy president to cover. His penchant for hyperbole and his habit of making explosive claims without evidence challenge the norms of political journalism, which by default accords the statements of public officials at least a modicum of credence.
In general, when a president or his administration accuses another public official of impropriety or criminality, that’s a big story. For a major news organization to ignore such a claim, on the assumption that it’s false, would be almost unthinkable. Or it would have been almost unthinkable before November 2016, when American voters elected as president a man who made his political name by promoting a nutty conspiracy theory that the previous president was secretly Kenyan.
Three months into the Trump era, cable news networks’ tortured handling of the Susan Rice story showed that they’re still finding their way—but their top news anchors have already absorbed some key lessons.
A breakthrough of sorts may have come in March, when centrist Time and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page explicitly acknowledged the enormity of Trump’s dishonesty by treating it as a major story in its own right. Around the same time, influential conservative outlets Fox News and the Independent Journal Review suspended key contributors for spreading pro-Trump falsehoods. Recognizing that Trump is not like other presidents, and that his claims and those of his proxies must be treated differently, is an important start.
There remains, however, the daily challenge of how to cover such claims when they arise—whether to parrot them as breaking news, to challenge them soberly, to rail against them righteously, or to declare them unworthy of coverage and quickly move on. Nowhere is the challenge more acute than on cable news channels, whose format demands that they react to each new development almost instantaneously, whether or not the relevant facts are at hand.
Their struggles were on full display this week as they grappled with a complex and politically charged story about former National Security Adviser Susan Rice’s handling of intelligence related to the Trump campaign last year. But when Trump tried to stir the pot by suggesting without evidence that Rice may have committed a crime, at least two prominent anchors—Fox News’ Shepard Smith and CNN’s Jake Tapper—proved that they’ve learned a thing or two after all. In the process, they provided a road map for mainstream media outlets to respond to the president’s wilder claims without tying themselves in knots or insulting their audience’s intelligence.
Even before Trump weighed in on Wednesday, via an interview with the New York Times, the media’s coverage of the Rice story had become nearly as controversial as the story itself.
Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake reported Tuesday morning that Rice had requested “on dozens of occasions” that intelligence officials reveal the names of Trump associates referred to anonymously in raw intelligence reports—a process known as “unmasking.” The right-wing Trump-vindication machine screeched to life, painting Rice as a villain and spinning the reports as evidence that the Obama administration had been improperly surveilling Trump’s team after all. Mainstream outlets treated the story more skeptically, pointing out that there are legitimate reasons for unmasking, and that it’s not particularly uncommon.
And after Rice categorically denied abusing intelligence for political purposes, some began to treat the story as a red herring propagated by Trump apologists to cover for his still-unsubstantiated claim that Obama had wiretapped him. CNN’s Chris Cuomo called it “a fake scandal being peddled by right-wing media.” The same network’s Don Lemon told viewers he would not “insult your intelligence” or “aid and abet the people who are trying to misinform you” by giving the Rice story undue attention. While they were right that the story was being distorted and overblown, they squandered a chance to inform viewers about some legitimate questions that it raised, particularly around the extent of post-9/11 government surveillance and its potential uses and misuses.
Cuomo, Lemon, and others who took a similar tack drew return fire from the likes of Breitbart and the Washington Times, whose Cheryl Chumley called Lemon “everything the American people hate about the mainstream media, rolled into one talking head mouth.” To their audiences, CNN’s dismissal of the story was more proof that it’s “fake news.” The close affinity between those outlets and the Trump administration was underscored when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer joined them in scolding the media for their “lack of interest” in the Rice reports. Nonetheless, some dust appeared to be settling by Wednesday as the media moved on to meatier topics such as foreign policy and the Supreme Court filibuster.
That’s when the White House hauled out the big dust-blower: Trump himself, granting the Times an exclusive sit-down in which he called the Rice reports “a massive, massive story” and said he thinks she might have committed a crime. He refused to provide any evidence to support that notion.
Surely now the media would have no choice but to put Rice atop its front pages and newscasts, right? After all, the Times is the ultimate agenda-setter for the media establishment, and its own reporters played up the interview’s news value, both on social media and in the story itself. “The allegation by a sitting president was a remarkable escalation,” Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush wrote, even as they cited critics diagnosing it as a diversion.
It was all shaping up as a textbook example of the mutual outrage loop that has characterized so much Trump coverage over the past year. Right-wing conspiracists make an incendiary claim; the mainstream media pooh-pooh or ignore it; Trump repeats it and criticizes the media for failing to cover it; the media responds by wigging out over Trump’s transgression of presidential norms; and the next thing you know, the story and the meta-story are dominating the headlines at the expense of more substantive news.
But this time, it didn’t quite play out that way. The Times published its interview around noon, shortly before Trump took the stage for a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abullah. Yet the White House reporters present admirably declined to take the bait, peppering the president instead with pointed questions about his posture toward Syria and his stance on refugees. These questions elicited from Trump an apparent about-face on his foreign policy in the region that rightly claimed top billing in the newscasts that followed.
Then the cable news anchors got their second whack at the story—and did right by it. Fox News’ Shepard Smith and CNN’s Jake Tapper both addressed Trump’s Rice comments relatively early in their afternoon time slots Wednesday, implicitly acknowledging that it’s still newsworthy when the president accuses a political rival of a crime. But both emphasized from the start that Trump had offered no evidence, and both made it clear that the unmasking claims did nothing to prove his earlier claim that Obama had wiretapped him. Both called on expert analysts to clarify what we know, and what we don’t, and what conclusions we could reasonably draw at this point. Both were careful to frame the Rice story in the context of the larger Trump–Russia story.
Notably, the anchors did all that without either dismissing or overplaying the story’s importance—and without grandstanding, Lemon-style, about their own judiciousness or respect for viewers’ intelligence. They did not pretend to be shocked that this president would lodge unsubstantiated allegations. They reported on Trump’s claims not in a tone of outrage or credulousness, but wearily, skeptically, and straightforwardly with a focus on the facts and the big picture. And then they got back to the other news of the day.
Both deserve credit for their handling of the story. Smith’s was arguably more consequential, because Fox News’ audience is the one whose support Trump relies on. Here’s how Smith led off his segment on Rice, about 20 minutes into his 3 p.m. time slot:
He then turned to Fox News intelligence analyst Catherine Herridge to dissect the facts of the case and its significance, followed by brief interviews with Republican Rep. Peter King and Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, both of the House Intelligence Committee. Then Smith wrapped things up by reminding us of the larger story at stake—the Trump campaign’s Russia ties:
Granted, Shepard Smith and Jake Tapper are not the only faces of their respective networks. Both Fox News and CNN ran more overheated commentary later in the evening—especially Fox News, whose Sean Hannity has done as much to cover for Trump’s mendacity as anyone in the media. On Wednesday, Hannity claimed Trump’s surveillance allegations had been “proven right” and called on the media to apologize for their skepticism. (Unfortunately, his show is more popular than Smith’s, not to mention better-received by the network’s conservative viewers.)
Nonetheless, those two anchors’ work on Wednesday pointed the way toward a more level-headed treatment of Trump’s would-be bombshells by their colleagues in cable news and elsewhere around the media. Trump feeds on media outrage and knows just how to provoke it. But ignoring what the president says can’t be the answer: It only bolsters the right-wing narrative that the media can’t be trusted to tell the real story.
Don Lemon was wrong: It’s not an insult to viewers’ intelligence to report on what the president and his supporters are saying. If anything, it’s an insult to their intelligence to assume that you have to shield them from his more dubious claims lest they be hoodwinked or driven to distraction.
What the president says is still news. It’s just a different kind of news than it used to be.