The Case for Covering Trump's Rallies
Donald Trump is upping his rally schedule dramatically. There's a thin pretext that these rallies are about bolstering Republicans in the midterm campaigns, but even the more cowardly media outlets seem to have given up the farce of pretending that Trump, who can barely be bothered to mention the candidates he's allegedly supporting, is doing this for any other reason than old-fashioned Goebbels-style propaganda. And, of course, feeding the narcissism vampire's endless appetite for attention. As CNN reported, aides are trying to cram more rallies in, "partly to boost Trump's mood and distract him from the headlines about Russia."
Because of this, an idea is starting to bubble up on the left, boosted by social media, that the press needs to stop covering Trump rallies. The rallies have no purpose other than spreading lies and whipping up the masses, the thinking goes, so by covering them, the press is being a handmaiden to propaganda. To make it worse, Trump has been putting the journalists who attend on display, and encouraging the audience to heap vitriol and threats in a two-minute hate designed to sow even more hatred towards the media and turn conservatives audiences increasingly towards conspiracy theories like QAnon.
Why does the press go to these rallies and give him a prop? It's not like they're newsworthy. https://t.co/2UQokZbBs9— Topher Spiro (@TopherSpiro) August 3, 2018
But journalists are pushing back, arguing that it's their duty to cover the news, and that these rallies put a spotlight on a very real and troubling shift towards extremism in America that needs to be documented. Many reporters feel that these liberal pressure campaigns are based on the false notion that ignoring a problem makes it go away, and instead believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
This is one of those situations that are hard to discuss in our overly emotional, nuance-free times, because both sides have a point. On one hand, we are witnessing a terrible moment in American history, the rise of a bona-fide white nationalist and perhaps fascist movement that sees these rallies as a flashpoint. That fact needs to be documented. On the other hand, it's also true that Trump is trying to exploit the mainstream media for propaganda purposes, and that journalists should resist being used in this way.
It's also true that the media tendency to simply run the cameras on every Trump rally or event in 2016, while refusing to give Hillary Clinton anything close to equal coverage, was an invaluable contribution to the Trump campaign that led to the horror show we're in now, and that mistake should not be repeated.
But the answer to this conundrum is not to stop covering Trump's rallies or even, as some have suggested, to whittle it down to a couple of print reporters who offer no images or video. Instead, the key is to be strategic about coverage, by focusing on the real story, which isn't whatever nonsense Trump is spewing, but the fact that this fascistic movement is forming at all.
It's also important not to let the coverage of right-wing politics drown out what's going on with the left. Simply giving more coverage to Democratic candidates and progressive activists, who are doing genuinely exciting work, can go a long way towards tilting the field towards real journalism and away from being an inadvertent funnel for Trumpian propaganda.
To be entirely fair, the past week's coverage of Trump rallies has actually been significant, from a journalistic perspective. The networks, outside of Fox News, have turned their cameras more away from the stage and to the audience. And the result has not been those soft-focus profiles of Trump supporters that the New York Times is fond of running, which end up papering over the truth instead of exposing it. Putting the spotlight on the people at a Trump rally inevitably shows viewers exactly what kind of jackals and bigots show up for this sort of thing, which is exactly the kind of unvarnished truth that liberals should want the media to be showcasing.
Take, for instance, the video that Jim Acosta of CNN posted of the crowd at a rally in Tampa, surrounding the media section and screaming invective at the journalists there. That video is horrifying and, more importantly, provides a valuable snapshot of how out of control the Trump base has become. As Trump's scandals pile up, they are reacting by turning into monsters whose politics are solely those of destruction. These people are showing the world who they truly are and it's not a good look, to say the least.
Clearly, many progressives don't see it that way, because Acosta's video seems to have precipitated the recent flood of calls to quit covering Trump rallies. The fear appears be that because Trump supporters and Trump himself have gloried in the video of the harassment, retweeting it and praising it online, then its value is greater as pro-Trump propaganda than as journalism exposing the true nature of Trump rallies.
That concern is overrated. No doubt it's disconcerting to many liberals to realize that imagery that repulses them might read as exciting to someone else, but that doesn't justify the panic attack and desire to shut it all down. Just because jackasses see other jackasses and feel proud to be a jackass doesn't mean that everyone else who sees this will agree.
Screaming authoritarians playing to the cameras is nothing new, after all. Think of the crowds of people who showed up to jeer at black students entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. They were proud of themselves, jostling to be at the front of the line where the camera could capture their image. But ultimately, even they realized that to most people, they looked like monsters. That kind of imagery helped shock decent people out of complacency then, and it could very well still have the power today that written descriptions never could.
There have also been benefits in journalists covering the sheer number of QAnon conspiracy theorists that are showing up to these rallies. There's a danger, of course, of spreading conspiracy theories by covering them — that may well have happened with birtherism, especially when Trump started pushing that on media outlets during Barack Obama's presidency.
But the problem with the coverage then was the hesitancy of too many journalists to immediately and assuredly frame the "questions" about Obama's citizenship as the racist conspiracy theory they were. The QAnon coverage, on the other hand, shows a lesson learned. Headlines indicate that it is a conspiracy theory and, increasingly, it's being framed not as some oddity but as a serious threat that it is.
It's understandable, in these horrible times, that progressives are feeling out of control and scared, and start grasping onto any idea that sounds like it might offer some relief from the maelstrom, such as demanding that the media stop covering Trump rallies. Even a news junkie like me finds that it's wise sometimes to turn off the TV, or give myself permission not to listen to recordings of more Trump lies, if only to protect my own mental and physical health. But ultimately, the story needs to be covered, as unpleasant as it is.
The media can be a lot smarter about how they cover Trump, in order not to be used by him. But the truth is that the media, or most of it, has greatly improved on that front since 2016. (The New York Times still has serious issues.) And Trump rallies are an important story. It's important to document the rise of what looks an awful lot like home-grown fascism, in large part because it can only be stopped if people are actually paying attention. There's no way to make sure of that if reporters aren't on the scene with cameras and notepads.