Over the past two weeks, since Donald Trump said on Truth Social that his indictment in Manhattan was imminent, the country has been in thrall to a familiar phenomenon: the frantic Trump news cycle. Once upon a time, it was all too common. An Axios graphic from September, 2017—“The insane news cycle of Trump’s presidency in 1 chart”—is a helpful reminder of that era. The chart showed search trends around major events during Trump’s first eight months in office. There was the Women’s March, the travel ban, “Covfefe,” and the firing of Sally Yates and of James Comey. There were also items I had no memory of: “Don Jr tweets his email”; “Beautiful chocolate cake” (Trump had the dessert right before a missile strike on Syria); “MOAB dropped” (the U.S. used its most powerful non-nuclear bomb on ISIS targets). I was struck by the mixture of ultimately inconsequential stuff (cake, tweets) with moments of life and death. How could I have forgotten those?
Trump’s arraignment and pending court case, his 2024 campaign, and other potential indictments mean the country is about to be deluged with Trump news: a jarring prospect, given that the past two years provided a relative reprieve from the former President’s antics. His ban from some social media, including Twitter and Facebook, meant he filtered into our feeds—and brains—less. (Those bans have since been reversed.) Perhaps because the mainstream television networks felt some remorse for having given Trump so much free airtime during the 2016 election and beyond, his campaign rallies, which re-started a couple of months ago, have so far received much less attention. Even Fox News has cooled on the former President a bit; he only recently returned to the network after months away, and prominent hosts have struck a more Trump-skeptical tone. Most of the country was just plain burned out on news following the Trump Presidency. A 2022 study from the Reuters Institute found that forty-two per cent of Americans now actively avoid the news.
It later came out that when Trump made what was ultimately an incorrect statement about his impending arrest—he was off by more than two weeks—he had inferred the timing from what his advisers had gleaned from earlier press reports. There was nothing that substantiated the claim or that elucidated the exact charges he might face, but the press was soon awash in stories citing his Truth Social post. Because the former President had called for protests, reporters and pundits worried about the possibility of a January 6th-esque event. When Trump was indicted, last Thursday, news stories were filled with speculation about how his arrest would unfold. Would he wear handcuffs and be fingerprinted? The Times reported that Trump was mulling whether to smile for the cameras. The Independent headlined a piece “Trump misspells ‘indicted’ in Truth Social post blasting ‘thugs and radical left monsters.’ ” A.I.-generated images of Trump being arrested circulated on social media, a reminder that the online environment has only grown more challenging for truthful news coverage.
Of course, no sitting or former U.S. President has ever been criminally indicted. The charges will substantially affect the Presidential campaign. And the precedent being set is historical. This is an enormous story, deserving of close coverage. But, to ask the time-worn question: how should we responsibly cover Trump? In a comprehensive look back for the Columbia Journalism Review, from October, 2020, Jon Allsop and Pete Vernon outlined the common categories of a Trump story. There were the reports on his ever-changing moods, staff turnover in the White House, and the occasional moments when Trump “met the basic standards of his office, especially when a teleprompter has been involved.” In particular, Allsop and Vernon called out the “interminable bloviating on the part of a Mueller-industrial complex of cable-news prosecutors and pundits.” Insert any other Trump-era scandal in that sentence and you’ll conjure up the cottage industry of roundtables and op-eds each inspired. We could do with less of that this time around.
It’s important to cover deviations from historical norms that Trump and others have made and will make. The challenge of covering Trump was that his entire Presidency was a deviation. When journalists clocked his every move, it was done in the correct spirit—vigorous attention to the most important public figure in the country, if not the world—but it failed because the rules changed. In 2022, the media critic Margaret Sullivan published her own retrospective, in the Washington Post Magazine, on the media’s handling of the Trump years. “His every unhinged, middle-of-the-night tweet was covered like legitimate news,” Sullivan wrote. “To be fair, the media was applying a standard that had made sense up until that moment: When a major presidential candidate says something provocative or worse, it’s newsworthy. The problem is that we were applying this old standard to a candidate who was exploiting it for his own purposes—while seeking to undermine democracy itself.”
Perversely, that kind of coverage dulls the public to its substance over time; it trains people on the sugary high of reactionary stories. We need complex carbohydrates to slow the news digestion, to drive home what’s important. Sullivan offers some prescriptions for covering the new Trumpian political reality, where misinformation has become a normal part of the G.O.P.’s playbook. She suggests news organizations follow the lead of a Pennsylvania public-radio station, which alerted listeners if a candidate was a 2020 election denier, even if the topic of the story was about another issue entirely. The idea is to hold officials to account, even after a news cycle is over. Thomas Patterson, a professor of government and the press at Harvard’s Kennedy School, suggests journalists carefully weigh whether interview access to Trump is newsworthy and if an expert opinion might serve just as well as a Trump quote. He points out that even well-intentioned journalists can spread misinformation by citing fact-challenged sources whose words or beliefs are then shared without context on social media.
These are earnest and reasonable press critiques that try to offer creative solutions. But it’s hard to imagine a widespread implementation of these practices. What political journalist would turn down a Trump interview? Repeatedly reminding listeners that a politician is an election denier is, in theory, a good way to try to hold the line on what is normal in a healthy democracy. It’s also a great way to make Republican news consumers think you’re picking on their team and compound their distrust in the media. Could the media more often choose to ignore Trump? If the speculation about his pending indictment felt a little prurient and giddy, it was also the stuff that the most addictive tabloid stories are made of. Trump is among our last mega-celebrities, a person universally accepted as important and interesting—if also widely despised—by all races, ages, and classes. Crazy news about the former President is what brings us together; it is the last gasp of American monoculture. It is our Trump monoculture.
The Manhattan grand jury’s indictment is a complex story, and an early test of whether the media has learned any lessons about how to healthily metabolize a Trump news cycle. There’s the political angle: Trump is fund-raising off of the indictment, and Republicans are calling the prosecutorial work of Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan District Attorney, politically motivated. There’s the Bragg angle: he killed an earlier Trump case before bringing the current charges, the legal underpinnings of which even some sympathetic onlookers have called into question. And there’s the historical context: what does it say about this moment in American democracy that the former President and current G.O.P. front-runner could end up in jail?
Back in 2017, around the time Axios published its Trump-news-cycle chart, I vividly remember getting into the car after a lovely, long beach weekend, turning on the radio, and having the Trump-filled news rush into my ears, pushing out the pleasant crunch of shell gravel, popping beer tops, and waves. He was as inescapable as a sunburn. On Monday, as I watched Trump’s private plane touch down at LaGuardia—and then his motorcade wend its way on the Grand Central Parkway toward Manhattan—that moment came back to me; the Trump reprieve is officially over. His voice will be back in your head soon enough. ♦