One of the guiding principles for the media in covering the President of the United States is that the things the president says and does are, by definition, newsworthy.
This is why there is a White House press corps and a “protective pool” that follows the president around everywhere.
This principle has largely served the media well. George W. Bush, at the beginning of his term, for example, was interested in tax cuts and talked a lot about tax cuts. The media, in turn, spent a lot of time writing and scrutinizing tax cuts.
Normally this makes sense: coverage is aligned with the issues that the president has made priorities. It appropriately reflects the immense power afforded to the president.
But what happens if the president intentionally misdirects the media by taking about trivialities?
As Trump tweets about SNL, he is leveraging his role as president-elect to benefit his business. This is completely unprecedented.
Trump held a party at his new Washington DC hotel encouraging foreign diplomats to stay in a $20,000 per night suite.
Trump’s behavior threatens a core tenet of American democracy — the president is supposed to represent the people, not himself.
Absent a complete divestment from his companies it could result in Trump violating the Constitution on his first day in office, according to George W. Bush’s ethics lawyer, Richard Painter and renowned Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe. Trump has said he intends to retain ownership in his companies throughout his presidency.
But major media outlets continue to treat Trump’s business conflicts as a secondary issue.
The main course is, per tradition, driven by Trump. But Trump is not talking about conflicts-of-interest. He is talking about Hamilton.
Trump also staged a photo-op with Mitt Romney, a much more moderate figure than the people that have joined his administration.
Trump nominated Jeff Sessions, a man the Senate decided was too racist to be a federal judge, to be Attorney General. He named Steve Bannon, the proprietor of a white nationalist website, to be his “chief strategist.” Michael Flynn, a conspiracy theorist and Islamophobe, will be National Security Adviser.
Romney has not been offered any position yet, but dominates the headlines because Trump steered the media that way.
It is a systemic failure and it is evident on A1 of the nation’s newspapers on Sunday.
The Washington Post
The top headline, “Trump: Romney meeting ‘great,’” reflects the traditional belief that what the president-elect says is of paramount importance. This is followed lower down by a three-column story on Trump’s tweets about Hamilton.
There is nothing on Trump’s growing conflict-of-interest problem or the men that Trump has actually put in charge of the government.
New York Times
The New York Times gives Trump what he wanted, an image of himself with Romney. There is also a piece describing his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a “steadying hand.” The piece itself, however, describes him as enabling Trump’s worst instincts, which does not seem steadying.
Hamilton also gets three-column treatment just below the fold.
In tiny font on the lower right of the page is a piece about Trump, in the middle of the transition, meeting with his Indian business partners. The men were interested in expanding their business relationship now that Trump was president-elect.
Once you get beyond the national papers, things get even bleaker. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a large paper in a state critical to Trump’s victory, the only article related to Trump was about his meeting with Romney.
The Orlando Sentinel, a major Florida paper, ignores the Trump transition completely — except for a small blurb on the left rail about his tweets on Hamilton.
These papers reveal a media largely unable to adjust to the new reality of Trump. He is a president-elect like no other being covered like every other president-elect.
The result is coverage that fails to adequately inform the public. The trivial becomes central and the essential becomes marginal.