The media is not equipped to handle the return of Donald Trump

Donald Trump's supporters greeted him on his way to CNN's town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Joseph Prezioso—AFP/Getty Images

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, it quickly became clear that much of the media was not up to the challenge of covering a candidate who openly lied, espoused racist ideologies, bragged about sexual assault, and encouraged his supporters to embrace a toxic vision for America by playing on their fears and insecurities. 

Part of the problem was that coverage of Trump was a ratings boon for the struggling news industry—with the “Trump bump” sending record numbers of viewers and readers to newspapers, online publications, and TV shows. It was intoxicating for the industry. News channels were captivated by Trump’s roadshow, famously airing empty podiums as they waited for him to arrive, instead of going live to his opponent Hillary Clinton giving a speech about her plans to raise incomes for working families. Newspaper journalists spent countless hours in red state diners trying to probe the psyche of Trump voters as if they were unknowable mysteries, instead of people who regularly expressed exactly who they were and what they were about. 

Even so, the American media establishment was blindsided by Trump’s 2016 victory, and vastly underestimated his ability to carry out his far-right agenda as president. While he was in the White House, many in the press fell back upon euphemisms and false equivalencies, as Perry Bacon, Jr. wrote recently in the Washington Post: They “played down Trump’s radicalism to appear neutral and objective, to get access to Trump and his top aides or to appeal to Republican officials and consumers.” And even now, they continue to curry favor with Trump and traffic in the rhetoric of “both sides”—as if there is more than one side to bigotry. 

After Trump lost the 2020 election, fomented an insurrection, and has continued, to this day, to promote “the big lie,” that he was robbed of a second term as president, I dared hope that the media had learned its lesson about how to cover Trump on the campaign trail.

In these early days of the 2024 election cycle, though, it would seem that nothing was learned at all.

Trump looked tired when he strolled onto the New Hampshire stage for CNN’s town hall on Wednesday, visibly wearing every one of his 76 years. The day before, a federal jury had found him liable for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s, and then defaming her. Still, CNN opted to move forward with the televised event, moderated by This Morning anchor and chief correspondent Kaitlan Collins in front of an audience of Republicans and Independent voters inclined to vote for him—a curious choice, at best. 

From the very first moment to the abrupt last, Trump was exactly who he has long revealed himself to be.

The candidate was bombastic, arrogant, and rude. He lied time and time again. When Collins, who came across as well-prepared and well-versed in all the political issues, corrected his lies in real time, he spoke over her, smirking as he declared his warped version of the truth to be the final word on everything from election fraud to the Jan. 6 insurrection to the debt ceiling. He continued to denigrate Carroll (who now says she’s considering suing him again). And save for the final minutes of the town hall, Collins ended up looking helpless in the face of the former president’s performance—exactly as he and his camp wanted it.

At times, Trump looked like a lunatic, babbling incoherent nonsense. At opportune moments, he threw out the words sure to rile up his base. Radical. Border. Patriot. Nasty person. Rarely did he answer the question being asked, instead using each one as an invitation to continue discussing whatever he wanted. The audience applauded and laughed and applauded and laughed. That was, perhaps, the most disappointing aspect of the prime time TV event, watched by 3.3 million people.

But the morning after this debacle was even more disappointing, perhaps, when CNN’s chairman, Chris Licht, congratulated Collins on “a masterful performance” and himself on his bravery in airing it. “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night,” he declared on the network’s morning editorial call. He went on to say that “Kaitlan pressed him again and again, and made news, made a lot of news.”

Let’s be clear: Media organizations are, mostly, businesses. They are struggling businesses in the midst of a downward spiral, making it harder to walk away from a spectacle that will bring them a big audience, even if the spectacle is destructive, corrosive to democracy, and criminal. Any one of CNN’s rival networks would likely have jumped at the opportunity to air the town hall. I would like to believe, however, that they would have done so with slightly more integrity. 

Most media enterprises employ great journalists who know how to call out liars and criminals—several did so at CNN, criticizing their own employers. But those people, doing the right thing and holding power to account, can’t compete with the spectacle. Trump and people like him know this, which is why they rarely face the press without bringing their own circus to town.

This town hall will consume people’s attention until we move on to the next garish spectacle. But there are far more critical issues we should be discussing: That Trump remains the frontrunner to represent his party by a wide margin; that the GOP considers him a viable candidate despite everything that has happened; that his base remains unrelentingly loyal to him. These are real problems. In the face of all that, the fact that CNN gave him a primetime platform for monologuing lies and misinformation, thereby conferring legitimacy on his ideological viewpoints, is a real problem. 

In the discourse cycle following the town hall, some pundits have raised the specter of ideological silos—admonishing those who criticize Wednesday’s farce that we shouldn’t only surround ourselves with people who reflect our values and beliefs. But those of us who find Trump odious are not living in a silo. We absolutely see and understand that half the country is fine with who Trump is and what he stands for.

Bigotry is not merely a different opinion that we should expose ourselves to. It isn’t an intellectual exercise or a useful contribution to a range of diverse viewpoints. It is an evil that must be eradicated. It must be identified as unacceptable, as often as necessary. And it should be denied the oxygen of the media. Freedom of speech does not guarantee unfettered access to media coverage.

Time and again, journalists say they just don’t know how to cover Trump, that he is impossible to cover. But he is only impossible to cover because he receives an inordinate amount of the media attention he so desperately craves. He is impossible to cover because he does whatever he wants, and no one truly challenges him. He is impossible to cover because we continue to let him dictate the terms of engagement. 

It’s time to stop. If journalism is really about truth, there is nothing newsworthy about giving free airtime to the prime minister of mendacity. Trump has been found guilty of crimes and faces several other criminal investigations. He disdains democracy and openly embraces autocracy. 

There should be standards for people seeking to lead the United States. Donald Trump does not meet those standards, by any measure. We should stop using euphemisms when it comes to his words and deeds. We should stop pretending that because he is the leading candidate, what he has to say is automatically newsworthy. When he refuses to speak truthfully or acknowledge election results, we should simply stop the interview and walk away. Enough is enough; too much is at stake. We should protect, at all costs, the many vulnerable populations that will be made less safe in a second Trump presidency. No matter what we believe or which party we are aligned with, we should want better for this country, for our communities, for the world we are a part of.

Roxane Gay is an author professor, editor, and social commentator.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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