(Un)Covering Trump

In the 818 days since the 2016 election, the Washington Post has used the word “unprecedented” in reference to President Donald Trump, or his associates, about 657 times­ — or almost every day. On just one day in January, for example, readers learned of Trump’s “unprecedented steps” to slow immigration, his “unprecedented decision” to hold onto his business in the White House, and his “unprecedented assault” on the census.

There is a breathlessness to the coverage that, oddly, does not diminish with time. The word “remarkable” appears almost as often in the Post, averaging every other day since 2016. We read about the “remarkable rift” between the President and his former National Security Adviser (Dec. 1, 2017), Trump’s “remarkable ignorance of U.S. history” (July 19, 2018), and his “remarkable tweetstorm” against his former lawyer (Dec. 4, 2018).

If something happens that often, it can’t be all that remarkable. Why do journalists keep using these words? Simple. Because any time news breaks, we call political scientists, pollsters, former White House staffers, and opponents for analysis, little of which is remotely illuminating. The problem is, we try to cover Trump as a political matter. And by doing so, we’re potentially missing a big part of the story.

Imagine if Trump had a seizure during a press conference. Would reporters ring up the folks at Brookings and the Cato Institute for comment? Would we analyze new polling data to help us understand if there is a clever political strategy behind his behavior?

No. We’d call physicians, who would tell us that they can’t formally diagnose the president without seeing him, but they can say that a seizure is generally caused by an uncontrolled electrical disturbance in the brain. They could then explain that a seizure might be caused by epilepsy — and what might happen if epilepsy goes untreated. This context would not be inappropriate or biased; it would demystify the president’s behavior and help us prepare for what comes next, with significantly less drama and noise.

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ConflictAmanda Ripley