Donald Trump’s ad hoc presidential campaign has upended official Washington as political professionals try to figure out how to deal with the outsider nominee-in-waiting who by every indication appears to be uninterested in toning down his outrageous tactics. Trump’s unconventional ways pose a particularly acute problem for political reporters. My students and I have had the opportunity to talk with several prominent journalists during our DC program, and we have heard the same refrain from them all. They don’t know how to cover him.
Trump poses a significant challenge to reporters. He lies. A lot. Seriously—a lot. So much that it can be difficult for reporters to absorb no less question his statements. The rapidity with which he issues falsehoods is equaled only by the great certainty he exhibits saying them, and the resulting density of misinformation leaves reporters at a disadvantage when they try to pierce his confidence. This may be Trump’s natural mode of operating but it is also a strategy. Any one misrepresentation or questionable action like, for instance, the way a candidate used her business email server, can become a chronic part of the campaign narrative. But many dozens of misrepresentations or questionable actions can slip by without scrutiny because reporters have no time to digest them before the next one comes along.
There is a risk that over time this lack of scrutiny will normalize Trump’s behavior through repeated exposure. What’s outrageous now can become normal with repetition if reporters are unable to find a way to hold the candidate accountable for his words and actions. What doesn’t kill his campaign just might make it stronger. I think the more thoughtful political reporters know this, but they are hamstrung by the norm of balanced coverage at the core of conventional journalism. One journalist I respect referred to this as “false balance”—the expectation that both sides in a political contest need to be given equal treatment to avoid the impression of partisanship. Reporters know that in Trump they are dealing with a campaign that has no equivalent in this or any other political contest. Yet he will be the Republican nominee. False balance prevents them from coming out and saying he is a serial liar, or that he is unqualified to hold the office he seeks.
It is possible and even likely that Trump’s behavior will disqualify him with a large segment of the electorate regardless of how he is covered. Still, reporters who take their jobs seriously recognize the responsibility they have to get this right. They just don’t know how to go about it.