Tag Archives: I.F. Stone

Presidential Theater and its Patrons

Because Donald Trump keeps violating the norms of the Presidency, mainstream journalists tend to write their own narratives rather than report on his.  If Trump truly wants “good press,” he will need to get beyond defensive jeremiads.

President Trump seems remarkably inept at using the rhetorical tools available to him.  He thinks small using social media rants when he could be projecting the aspirations for his administration.  Because he keeps violating the norms of the Presidency, journalists tend to write their own narratives rather than merely paraphrase these defensive jeremiads.

And so we are at an impasse where the President is threatening to pull back from daily briefings.  He’s right to be concerned. As they stand they are defensive affairs, bereft of details on new ideas and proposals. Functionally they are cross-examination sessions, with the press asking and too rarely receiving basic information. Little wonder they are now covered “live” not only by cable news; there are also streamed by online news sources as well. As things stand, covering the Trump administration is like living next to a highway intersection where this is a fender-bender several times a day.  It’s hard to look away.

In truth, news is rarely made at the site of what was once the White House swimming pool, even while the networks hype the daily confrontations.  Reporters fill the cramped press space , hanging on every syllable and angry correction issued from the defensive Press Secretary, Sean Spicer.  They would like clarity on some of the ambiguities that have accumulated in the last 24 hours.  Like all press secretaries, Spicer is usually determined to be as creative with the truth and non-committal as possible.  He’s also become comfortable issuing his own warnings on how the press should be doing their job.

To be sure, it can’t be much fun to be in Spicer’s shoes.  His boss can change his mind faster than a quarterback trying to recover from a busted play.

As things stand, covering the Trump administration is like living next to a highway intersection where this is a fender-bender several times a day.  It’s hard to look away.

So how should the press respond to a president that saves key opinions and grand gestures for himself?   It’s probably not by sitting in the White House press room.  The white house beat is a journalistic irony.  It typically goes to a reporter as a reward.  And yet it means functioning in a small and restricted space with access to only very guarded sources.  Like a musician who has landed a long-term job playing in the pit of a broadway show, the work is admirably steady.  Any number of competitors would like the gig.  But it can be professionally numbing.

It’s worth remembering that one of America’s most iconic reporters, I.F. Stone, made it a hallmark of his journalism to not sit through formal press briefings and most other presidential events.  He was more likely to spend time engaged in close reading of an agency report. Stone was a print journalist.  He felt no urgency to find interesting pictures. He didn’t have to be present for the “show.”  He could write about ideas, policy, and the merits of different approaches without waiting for a leader to mention the subject.

Every good journalist carries the genes of an investigative reporter like Stone.  We and they just have to get beyond the empty theatrics.

Trump is a showman, a performance artist.  Journalists are going to have to become smarter to learn what is really going on.

This kind of digging lives on with news gatherers like Pro-Publica, Mother Jones, Politico, and some of the nation’s biggest and revived newspapers.  Think of the recent “Best Picture” Oscar winner, Spotlight (2015), which recreated the meticulous digging that allowed reporters at the Boston Globe to challenge official church narratives on peodophiles still being protected. Press conferences could have never given the people of Boston what they needed to know.

Trump is a showman, a performance artist. Journalists are going to have to become smarter in covering the Presidency if they want to know what is going on.  Listening to him or his surrogates is not apt to yield much insight into the rationales for government actions.

Luckily, as the saying goes, Washington is the only ship of state that leaks from the top.  There seems to be no shortage of informed senior level sources in the Administration who can help journalists understand the thinking of the Trump Administration.  But we will have to give up our fascination with, among other things, the matinee sideshow  of magical thinking that is the daily White House briefing.

I once wrote a book on politics and theater (Center Stage, 2007).  At the time it made sense because so many politicos and journalists clearly wanted to master and manage news in an entertainment-dominated environment. Yet that perspective is now too facile; the national’s capital must be more than just another center for the performing arts.  Leadership needs to include the mastery of leadership skills:  conciliation, a head for details and social effects, an interest in consultation with others, and the grace to know when not to speak.  A President that touts his success as a reality tv star needs to get serious if his administration is to be a match for the quick studies in the national press.

What are Campaigns For?


We seem to love news stories built around the game of politics.

The presidential election season now takes the space of nearly three NFL seasons, where the endless journalistic fascination on the minutia of strategy far exceeds what any sane person wants to hear.  Imagine seeing the musical Cats for six hundred performances, and we begin to get a sense of the fatigue factor we have built into our presidential politics.

The reasons for this endless campaign cycle are varied, systemic and ultimately not very interesting.  Suffice it is say that no one is really in charge.  And so a crazy quilt of organizational needs and commercial opportunities play out in repetitive loops spread over many months.  Think of the chaotic rules the parties now use to set up primaries and caucuses.  Most of the population centers in the United States must wait for smaller states like Iowa and New Hampshire to weigh in.

Analysis of our campaign journalism reveals that most of what political journalists give us is what communication researchers call “process reporting.”

There is one overriding  feature of these endless campaigns that is especially problematic.  It’s connected to how they are covered by most of the news media. Analysis of our campaign journalism reveals that the lion’s share of the reporting that political journalists give us is what communication researchers Kathleen Jamieson and Joe Cappella call “process reporting.”[1]  Process stories tell us very little about what the candidates will do should they get the opportunity to govern; they tell us much more about what the campaigns are planning as they do battle with their opponents.

Jamieson and Cappella’s research examined print and broadcast coverage, with the goal of coding stories as either focusing mostly on substantive issues or on how various sides are playing the “game” of politics.  Substantive coverage includes stories on what a candidate thinks: how he or she would govern and lead, and what policies they would propose.  By contrast, the “process” or “strategy” frame of reference is a label given to individual reports focused primarily on political polling, and also what individual candidates and their campaigns are strategizing to win over voters.

Why is a candidate spending so much time in a particular “swing” state?  Why did they use this location and this particular audience as a place to focus on pay differentials between men and women?  Whose decision was it to keep the candidate away from interviewers at The Washington Post?  The strategic questions are endless and often trivial.  But as with the comments of “color” commentators broadcasting professional sports, we seem to have an endless reservoir of curiosity about  the backstories of individual players.  News sites like Politico or television programs like With All Due Respect (Bloomberg/MSNBC) would be nowhere without the “inside baseball” commentary that turns their  journalists into connoisseurs of campaign mechanics.  We love reports built around public opinion poll results, and the play-by-play on decisions on raising money, picking staffers, and the geographic deployment of the candidate.  We expect and get far less analysis of major challenges the country and the newly elected leader will face in the next four years.  And that’s a problem.

With this focus on process there is less journalistic curiosity about political substance.  Journalists simply don’t have time to follow a campaign around the nation while at the same time getting up to speed on the diplomatic possibilities for making headway to end the Syrian civil war, or for helping the European Union ease its political crisis. The iconic journalist I.F. Stone noted years ago that journalists would do better to stay at home and write stories based on the public record: the policy positions of governments or the position papers of candidates who want to run them.

It may be considered “old school” to expect that campaigns will result in a national dialogue about the great issues facing the nation.  And yet when we are consumed with the sideshows of the campaigns, we are also sacrificing the opportunity to clear away the brush to find safe passage through the thorny landscape that lies ahead.


[1] Kathleen Jamieson and Joseph Cappella, Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) , 33-34.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu