Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley on how reporting the news has changed.

Ben Mathis-Lilley on Covering Breaking News Under Trump

Ben Mathis-Lilley on Covering Breaking News Under Trump

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May 16 2017 11:18 AM

Filtering Out the News From the Noise

Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley on covering breaking news under Trump.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump delivers a keynote address at the Liberty University commencement in Lynchburg, Virginia, on Saturday.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters

Among the many things that feel different in the Trump administration is the sheer amount of news we’re expected to process. In this podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members, Slatest blogger Ben Mathis-Lilley talks about what it’s like to cover the news at that kind of breakneck pace.

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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chau Tu: Tell me what it’s like writing for the Slatest. What’s your day-to-day like?

Ben Mathis-Lilley: It used to be that I would get up in the morning and read through a couple newsletters, Washington Post, New York Times, look at some different sites, look at Twitter, and try to come up with what I thought was the most interesting story at 9 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. or whenever I was doing it. Now, it’s pretty much that I get up and I look to see what Trump has done and I write about that.

That’s the routine now. It’s a little different than it was. I started this job, I think, in 2014. For about a year there, I was covering a variety of subjects, and now it’s a little different.

Do you feel like [it’s] politics all the time now?

Yeah. I was thinking on the way in—we used to cover, and we still do cover these stories to a lesser extent, obviously, but you would get a lot more of a mix of international news stories, state-level stories, throw some sports and entertainment in there. Any given day in 2014, it might be Obama, it might be the Republicans’ budget negotiations, [or] something going on in D.C.—but it was just as likely to be execution in Oklahoma that was a big story, [or] the kidnapping of the school girls in Nigeria. You had stories like that that would really occupy the news for a week at a time, two weeks at a time. Now it’s really more Washington, D.C. If it’s not Trump, it’s somebody in Congress that’s reacting to him, that sort of thing.

Do you have any regular go-to sources that you’re following?

This is the shallow answer and I’m embarrassed to tell people this, but Twitter is just really the best way for me to find the story because our official Slatest Twitter account follows hundreds of different news outlets. Then, in addition to following the outlets themselves, we follow various commentators and pundits. Twitter is really just the best way to see what stories are bubbling up, to see what people are excited about. There’s a general correspondence. Obviously, it’s not one-to-one. The bubble is real, but basically, if something is catching the interest of newspeople on Twitter, it’s usually a pretty good bet that our readers will be interested in it an hour later or a few hours later, whenever we get the post done.

That goes back to what I was saying before: It does just feel like there’s this onslaught of news about Trump especially. Do you think it is an actual onslaught of news about Trump or is it just social media, technology, all of that?

That’s a good question. You just can’t respond to everything he tweets because he tweets several times a day usually and there’s not always necessarily a lot behind the tweets he’s sending, factually or substantively. So I hope that we’re kind of good at filtering that out.

You could do 15 stories a day that had the word ‘Trump’ in them and maybe all of them would catch people’s eyes, but they wouldn’t actually all be substantive. It is a hard thing. You want to cover someone who says and does a lot of insubstantive things, in a substantive way. That is kind of the trick with him.

Again, it does feel like there’s a lot going on but you’ve actually written about how you feel about how Trump maybe isn’t actually accomplishing that much. You had a post about his first 100 days and you compared it to President Harrison, who died on Day 31.


What’s your verdict so far? Is Trump a productive president?

No. That’s the thing. At this point I think, at least in my own writing, I’ve kind of learned to just ignore a lot of these executive orders that he signs that don’t have any actual legal weight behind them. Like I said, [I] avoid writing about a lot of the things he tweets because it’s not necessarily indicative of his actual priorities.

All the same, there is still an incredible amount going on in Washington, D.C., and I think that like, Josh Voorhees, who was the Slatest blogger before me; Josh Keating covers foreign policy; my colleague, Osita, covers the intellectual state of the country, campuses, and that sort of thing—there are a lot of things going on maybe on that secondary level. So if you’re looking this week at what Jared Kushner’s family is doing in China, trying to pitch investors using Trump’s name or Trump’s whimsical sense that he had a good meeting with China’s premier and now we’re a kind of pro-China country—Josh Keating is writing about that, how that affects North Korea. There are kind of these secondary effects that Trump can have that are real for a lot of people, all around the country and the world. You can cover those things without necessarily having to cover every utterance that comes out of his mouth.

Trump does have a notorious relationship with the press. How would you describe that? How are you seeing that from your end here?

I think he’s covered pretty fairly. A good example was when he asked for the resignations of the U.S. attorneys all around the country, people initially reacted to that as if it were shocking. Which, it does sound shocking: A president asking for resignation of every U.S. attorney. That’s a big change. But after a few minutes, people who knew what they were talking about kind of jumped in and said, well actually every president does this—Obama did it; Clinton would have done it.

There are some stories that maybe get hyped up a little too much because it’s Trump, but on the whole, I think a lot of the things he’s doing are pretty unprecedented even compared to past administrations that have had scandals and controversies. This is definitely on another level.

It’s pretty crazy to have the top two advisers in the White House be some guy’s son-in-law, who’s a real estate developer with no experience in politics, and a movie producer—Steve Bannon—and website publisher with no real experience in politics. George W. Bush’s administration, from my perspective, governed maybe in an irresponsible way sometimes, but they were all Rhodes scholars compared to the people who are in office now.

I think it’s negative. Sean Spicer came out in one of his first press conferences and says, you guys are just so negative, why don’t you focus on the happy parts of the Trump administration? And I understand, almost, how you would see that if you were on the inside but the negative stories by and large, the big stories—Russia, corruption, the governing incompetence—I think those are all real stories with a real basis in what’s going on.

Has there been an especially crazy day covering breaking news?

Election night is one that we will all never forget. I think I wrote the “Hillary wins” post. You have these posts that you want to get ready in advance, just for the stuff that’s obviously going to happen. I had my “Hillary wins” post and then as the night went on, it became kind of obvious that we would have to do a “Trump wins” post. The one I ended up doing was like, “Whoa! At the last minute, it turns out Hillary won after all” post, and obviously that one never went up. Those are all sitting in the Slate archives somewhere. Of course, that was a wild night.

Probably the closest to that after that, or maybe even more meaningful as far as people really being affected, was the travel ban on the Muslim-majority countries. That Friday night, that weekend, and the beginning of the next week was a pretty exciting time to be covering it. That and then when the health care bill finally passed were the only two times, like you mentioned before, when something actually came out of Washington that immediately affected a lot of people’s lives. Those situations where there’s drama and human interest are always the most interesting to cover.

Do you ever get overwhelmed by all this news? What’s your coping mechanism?

It’s funny that you ask that because I pitched a story a few years ago, even before Trump really took off. If you look, overall, the world is probably a more healthy and prosperous place than it’s ever been. There are a lot of wars, there’s a lot of suffering but, overall, our standards of living are fairly high right now. But I think everyone is just able, as you mentioned earlier, with technology, to just see the misery in the world—up close, immediately, as soon as it happens. Something awful can happen in Syria and to a degree that’s unprecedented anywhere, anytime in history—and you could be watching that happen on a phone. A video taken on a phone a foot away from someone dying. You can be watching that 10 minutes later. I think people—not just me, just anyone who follows the news—is bombarded with the real dark sides of life to a degree that’s probably pretty unprecedented.

My story idea was to try to figure out what should we do about this in terms of “self care,” but more existentially. How you maintain an equilibrium in your mind, an outlook on humanity that’s just not completely bleak? To answer your question, I never did that story, so I don’t know! I don’t know. Really, the obvious answer for me is I just shut off the computer and I hang out with my wife and my kid and my friends, and then on the weekends, I don’t feel any guilt about not checking the news at all.

The other part of it is just writing about it is actually a good way to release tension. Not available to everyone, of course, to have this platform, which I’m very lucky to have. I did find that when I took a couple weeks off after my son was born, it was awful because instead of ignoring the news, I was still watching it and I had no outlet to process my feelings about it. It’s nice to have this job as a form of therapy for me. [Laughs.]