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How to cover a coup — or whatever it is Trump is attempting

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/12/2020 Margaret Sullivan
Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Trump turns away in the rain after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday. Media covering him this week are struggling with how to warn about worst-case outcomes without giving unwarranted credence to pathetic, last-gasp flailings. © Carlos Barria/Reuters President Trump turns away in the rain after laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday. Media covering him this week are struggling with how to warn about worst-case outcomes without giving unwarranted credence to pathetic, last-gasp flailings.

President Trump lost. The nation knows it. The world knows it. And, although he won’t admit it, he certainly knows it, too.

But because he is claiming otherwise — with his Republican enablers joining the chorus — this past week has presented the reality-based press with a strange and extremely important challenge.

How do you cover something that, at worst, lays the groundwork for a coup attempt and, at best, represents a brazen lie that could be deeply damaging to American democracy?

“You don’t want to fearmonger. You don’t want to underplay something this dangerous, either,” Noah Shachtman, editor of the Daily Beast, told me.

The trickiest part: “Figuring out whether these bogus accusations are actually dangerous to the republic or just the last, lame gasps of a doomed administration.”

I’d argue that they’re both. Not because they pose more than a sliver of a chance of overturning the reality that Joe Biden will take office in January. Rather, because the constant drumbeat that the election was somehow illegitimate does harm all by itself.

In general, the press has covered this madness reasonably well. Even Fox News, Trump’s longtime cheerleader, quickly started using the term “president-elect” to refer to Biden. (Whether the network may have been shamed into this, early on, by a CNN story about its decision-making is a possibility, though Fox vehemently denies it.) And the mainstream press has given Trump’s mewling a lot of attention without giving it much credence.

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Still, some of the worst tendencies of the media are on display, even if in muted form.

The two I’ve seen most frequently are the endless infatuation with dramatic conflict and the tendency to give equal treatment to both sides of any equation. Thus we get chyrons and headlines such as this one in Axios: “As Trump fights the transition in D.C., the world moves on to Biden.”

Feels about equal, right? With Trump getting the top billing.

And then there’s the straight-ahead repetition of dangerous rhetoric, as in this NPR headline about a startling statement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one he may have meant as a joke: “Pompeo Promises a ‘Smooth Transition To A Second Trump Administration.’ ”

And speaking of the “both sides” problem, Fox media expert Howard Kurtz, formerly of The Washington Post, took a drubbing Wednesday on Twitter for writing this promo of his column: “From Trump’s GSA barring Biden transition officials from federal buildings to Whoopi Goldberg telling his voters to suck it up, both sides are playing the politics of payback. Why the anger still rages and the election feels endless.” (He defended himself by saying that the column itself was more sensible. It was, a little.)

But some of the most effective coverage of what’s happening has necessarily included a fair amount of commentary — or straight-up opinion.

[The media never fully learned how to cover Trump. But they still might have saved democracy.]

Notable in this category was the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial, displayed in a very unusual place: above the newspaper’s front-page flag on Wednesday. It harshly criticized Georgia’s senators, Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, for echoing Trump’s claims with an attack on the state’s voting integrity.

“That is dangerous behavior, both for this state and for this nation,” declared the editorial.

On the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, even Karl Rove — a regular pro-Trump presence on Fox News — was calling for Trump to face the music: “The president’s efforts are unlikely to move a single state from Mr. Biden’s column, and certainly they’re not enough to change the final outcome.” (He sounded a little less sure on the air.)

A group of political scientists and media scholars that calls itself the Election Coverage and Democracy Network has come up with recommendations for journalists navigating this moment. This point of theirs deserves particular emphasis: “Use a democracy-worthy frame, not a partisan one. This means denying a platform to partisan pundits who advance false claims.”

The media writ large, addicted to dramatic conflict and false balance in the mistaken name of fairness, finds that exceedingly hard to do.

But some are managing to pull it off. Jake Tapper did it well in his initial comments early this week on CNN’s “The Lead,” by keeping Biden’s latest activities in the foreground and recapping Pompeo’s alleged joke about a second Trump term by noting, with undisguised outrage, “That is madness.”

Sometimes, good journalism comes down to the basics: an energetic adherence to facts, as with the New York Times’s survey of Republican and Democratic voting officials in all 50 states, which produced this front-page banner headline: “Election Officials Nationwide Find No Fraud.” And tireless fact-checking enters in, too, as in a Washington Post debunking of four viral videos that falsely claimed voter fraud.

For Shachtman, of the Daily Beast, sophisticated coverage looks beneath the surface, too, to real motivation, as with a story headlined, “All the Ways Trumpworld Wants to Cash In On MAGA Anger Over the Election.”

“It’s important to show,” he wrote to me, “that, for many of the operatives pretending to back the president here, this is just a grift.”

Grift, attempted coup, the first stages (denial and anger) of Trumpian grief? Or are they all insidiously combined in a toxic, anti-democratic stew?

As journalists navigate this tricky path, I’ve seen some stumbles, some skillful tightrope-walking and some bravery.

And there’s a long, dangerous way to go.

For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan

Correction: An earlier version of this column said Pompeo called his “second Trump administration” comment a joke. He has not acknowledged outright that it was.

Read more by Margaret Sullivan: Fox News is pulling out all the stops to promote Trump’s twisted logic about ‘corrupt’ voting We still don’t know much about this election — except that the media and pollsters blew it again Election Day will be the media’s D-Day. The skill we need most is the one we’ve never mastered.
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