Trump, the Media and the Classroom

Even if Donald Trump were not such a looming threat to the United States and its traditions, he would still be a perfect teaching tool for use in Introduction to Journalism classes. If I could go back an redesign my syllabus for this fall semester, I would make it all about the coverage of Trump—not about Trump so much as how the news media have reacted to him. The assumptions American news media have acted upon at least since Watergate are suddenly showing their vacuity.

Emblematic of press failure was the November 29 edition of Meet the Press where Trump, via telephone, left host Chuck Todd with little more than a confused, open-mouthed attempt at a smile—though Todd had clearly thought he had all of his facts and questions in order. Trump condescended to him, talked over him and twisted him, leaving Todd with (to his own mind) no option but to abandon each line of questioning for another. His fact-checking was to words Trump had uttered earlier; he had no ability to directly challenge new statements or to respond to evasions and appeals to common knowledge:

CHUCK TODD:

–based on re-tweets and based on hearsay. You’re running for president of the United States. Your words matter. Truthfulness matters. Fact-based stuff matters.

DONALD TRUMP:

Take it easy, Chuck. Just play cool. This is people in this country that love our country that saw this, by the hundreds they’re calling, and they’re tweeting. And there’s a lot of people. In Sarasota, people were telling me yesterday they used to live in New Jersey. They remember it vividly. They thought it was disgusting.

So, these are people that saw it, too. The Washington Post reported it. Many, many people have seen it. I have a very good memory, I’ll tell you. I saw it somewhere on television many years ago. And I never forgot it. And it was on television, too.

CHUCK TODD:

Let me ask you about your reaction to what happened in Colorado.

This was pathetic, so much so that I could not help but feel a little sorry for Todd. Trump had no respect for him, no fear of him as a representative of news media and absolutely no willingness to engage Todd on his own ground. Trump simply pulled the rug out from under him.

To make matters worse, a cowed Todd, at the end, promoted a future face-to-face interview with Trump. What he should have done, of course, was tell Trump, quite bluntly, that he could not continue speaking with him unless Trump were willing to conform to a few basic rules of honesty. When Trump would bluster a response–as he surely would–Todd could have said, “It’s that simple. I am not here as a conduit for lies. Goodbye.”

But Todd would never do that. It does not conform to his vision of his profession. Trump knows that, and takes advantage of it.

Also on the 29th, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen posted about Trump and the media on PressThink. He wrote, “To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in presidential campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them.”

When the wheels fall off a vehicle—as they are now falling off the political press—one has a chance to see, in ways never before possible, exactly how that vehicle worked.

Which is why, of course, this entire political fall has become an extended ‘teachable moment.’

7 thoughts on “Trump, the Media and the Classroom

  1. Lately I’ve wondered if the Trump effect is tied to the notion that the person usually elected to the presidency is the one “you’d most likely have a beer with.” I say this not because I’d have a beer with him, but because he reminds me of my younger days when I frequently played billiards. There was always someone at the local tavern behaving like Trump.

    Trump seems to almost always portray himself as that guy who had one beer too many. The one at the bar who bloviates over politics, religion and anything else he happened to see on CNN that day.

    Maybe Trump has brilliantly tapped into something boosting his popularity. Instead of being the guy you’d like to have a beer with- he is instead the guy you are always stuck having a beer with… and for some unconscious reason, that appeals to a majority of Americans.

  2. This man is insane. and also gives me more Questions to ask Cruz supporters. They already were responding to me rude or not at all. Other candidates had voiced disgust on trumps statement, I wonder will Cruz comment at all. If former vice president dick Cheney can speak up about trump. I wonder if one of the comments I got from a Cruz supporter that says ” Cruz hates Muslims” be a glimmer of truth. I guess wait and see

  3. Of course, Trump’s target demographic is not the set of students to whom you would like to teach, so he does not necessarily care how his statements and strategies fare under rational analysis.

    • Nor is his target audience the news media, which is one of the things making this so interesting, for the news media are used to being the representatives of the public.

      In a way, for the purposes of teaching, agreement or disagreement with Trump is irrelevant. The important thing is what he is showing (unintentinally or not) about the news media.

      • I agree that Trump has provided a highly interesting repudiation of conventional wisdom: any one of his statements in the past would have been enough to sink a more traditional candidate. And yet here he is, still at the top of the primary polls. The news media’s previous paradigm of providing equal weight to both political sides without instantaneous fact checking at the point of interview needs to be reevaluated.

        So yes, I can see how this would be a useful source of inquiry for your students (and ALL journalism students).

        Still stand by my statement that he cares not a whit about any of this.

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