Journalism in the Post-Trump Era: “Media outlets have enjoyed a ‘Trump bump’ over the last four years. Will a slump follow?”

From a story on NiemanReports by Allegra Hobbs headlined: “For Political Reporters, the Post-Trump Era Poses Practical—and Existential—Questions”:

For the four years President Donald Trump was in office, political journalists covered an administration that repeatedly attacked the press. . . .Now Trump is on the way out, and the press finds itself preparing to cover what is likely to be a — comparatively — bland Biden administration. . . .

But it’s not as though the political press will flip a switch and revert to the pre-Trump era — this unusual administration has left its mark. Elisabeth Bumiller, assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief at The New York Times, notes the considerable volume of misinformation coming from the Trump administration transformed a more credulous pre-existing dynamic of political coverage.

“In the old days, it was much more of a ‘Republicans said this today, but Democrats countered with that,’ and Trump changed all that,” says Bumiller. “We have a formulation now with Trump of, ‘The president falsely said.’ Occasionally we have said, ‘The president lied.’ We have changed our approach so that we determine the best we can what the actual truth is and then say it, as opposed to doing this both sides thing. . . .I think both-siderism was dying anyway, before Trump.”

Nathan McDermott, political reporter for CNN’s KFile, predicts the dynamic of “mutual deference and respect” between politicians and political reporters ended with the Trump era: “It’s a bit naive to think the world will return to that again. I think political reporters have become a lot more understanding of bad faith actors and people who not only lie but lie to reporters to try to get their message out. . . .

Outlets will have to make editorial (and ethical) judgments about how to cover Trump moving forward, if at all. At the very least, hanging on his every word will no longer be necessary. “I don’t think what he says is relevant unless it has a real impact on the world — and that may be less and less true,” says media columnist Ben Smith of The New York Times. “Often picking a fight with the press is the point, and you don’t have to engage.”

Still, it seems unlikely Trump himself — or his influence — will disappear in a Biden presidency. Republican leaders, far from repudiating Trump have continued to demonstrate their loyalty, backing the president’s refusal to concede the election. . . .

Divisions on the left will continue to deepen as well — those divisions were not front and center in the months leading up to the election because the emphasis was on defeating Trump and managing national crises. . . .As Biden ascends to the presidency, efforts by the party’s more progressive wing to push the president-elect left will resume. . . .

During the Trump presidency, outlets were forced to match a hostile administration with a new level of scrutiny, vigilance, and aggressive debunking. Now they will have to make decisions about covering a Biden administration. Will they take a similarly aggressive stance? Will they take it as an opportunity to showcase their neutrality?

“I do think that the mainstream press has been very defensive in recent years about being called part of the Democratic apparatus,” says Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post and previously the public editor of The New York Times. “Journalists want to be seen as independent, so when they’re accused of being part of the political system spewing talking points for the DNC and so on, they become even more careful about not looking like they’re biased in any way. . . .”

Cable news networks will also have to make determinations about tone moving forward. For Fox, the answer may be more straightforward — after all, after eight years of criticizing Obama they “transitioned into non-stop praising Trump, feeding him ideas,” observes media analyst Rick Edmonds of Poynter. “I think they may need to get a new act, though presumably they’ll have plenty to complain about with a Democratic administration.”

Cable networks more left-leaning than Fox may have a more complex reckoning with regards to tone, however. “In some ways I think it’s a little harder for MSNBC particularly — and CNN to an extent — that you can’t be in relentless opposition with the person you’re opposing, who isn’t there anymore,” says Edmonds. “Many more people watch the network evening news, which is more down the middle of the road, but the cable networks are really contributors to hyper partisanship and it will be interesting to see if there is any soul searching and kind of course adjustment.”. . .

Outlets have enjoyed a “Trump bump” over the last four years as record numbers of media consumers have shown an increased interest in staying informed. The New York Times Company saw its income double during the third quarter of 2020, raking in a whopping 7 million subscribers. Will a slump necessarily follow?

“I think the question of whether people will be as deeply involved in news coverage, whether new consumers will be as interested as they have been during a four-year crisis of democracy — it seems unlikely they’ll be as glued to national politics as they have been,” says Sullivan. . . .Trump called himself a ratings machine, and in many ways he was — he knew how to command attention, he will continue to command attention. That I think is a more likely scenario: that people will stay tuned because he’s not going to leave the stage.”

Bumiller suspects Times readers will stay tuned in, whether for political coverage or the paper’s other offerings. “There’s a lot of interest in Biden now, and we think that will continue into the year,” says Bumiller. She also observes that many Times readers were attracted to non-political pieces — about arts, travel, culture, food, and music. “The Times has also been aware for years of the ‘Trump Bump’ as we called it, but it turns out people have stayed with the Times and have read things beyond Trump coverage.”

And while it seems unlikely Trump’s time in the spotlight will fade away anytime soon, outlets will ultimately have to make determinations about how, when, and to what extent he should continue to be covered. It certainly shouldn’t be done for the sake of ratings, argues Sullivan, but “If it’s truly newsworthy, then yes, it makes sense to cover it to a certain point.”


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