How best to treat Trump’s tweets?

Before Donald Trump was sworn in to the presidency, I wrote that the media needed to find a better way to report on his tweets. To treat each as a huge presidential statement of policy, I said, seems wrong, especially with Trump who, as we’ve learned, runs by gut instinct. Now that I’ve seen the coverage for 20-odd months, I feel the same.

Since he took office, Trump has lied, according to The Washington Post, more than 7,000 times, many in his tweets. Since he took office we heard his former press secretary Sean Spicer announce that his tweets were “presidential policy,” and his “attorney,” Rudy Giuliani, say the tweets are “his opinions,” not instructions to his staff or administration.

We have seen Trump threaten war in tweets; disparage various folks he feels, at that moment, are his enemies; declare trade wars; and harass his own Cabinet members.

In short, his tweets are sometimes important, sometimes now. He often ignores his own tweet statements and his Cabinet has too. He is a transactional president focusing on the problem at the moment, for the moment. He often contradicts his own tweets.

Giuliani seems closer to the truth than Spicer on this one.

Cable news networks must have one person assigned to stare at Trump’s Twitter feed 24/7 because within seconds of a tweet, Wolf Blitzer is reading it live on TV and tossing it to his “expert panel” to dissect it for the next 12 hours. And dissect they do because, well, that’s what they get paid to do.

Thus, Trump is dictating the news in many news cycles because of his tweets. Which means he can get the media off a truly important story by texting an inane tweet that forces them to cover the insanity.

Now sometimes his tweets do command such coverage. I’d say the President of the United States threatening war, whether he means it or not, deserves immediate coverage as the world tries to figure out what’s going on.

But not every tweet is equal. Often, the ones I presume are written by his Twitter guy are not news and already aren’t broadly covered. These typically tout the latest good economic news or give credit to Trump for a recent primary win for a Republican.
Others are beyond the truly mundane but still don’t reach the yardstick of “news.”

Since his lawyer tells us these are “just his opinions” and not intended as policy directives to his Administration, that’s another reason they aren’t so newsworthy.

The media is correct to fact check his tweets in real time, which they do. But that’s not enough. If the media did not make such big news of almost every crazy Tweet, the President would lose most of the method in which he spreads his madness. Much of it just false.

And, the media would be right to make the change since more than half the time he doesn’t mean what he says. It also might make the former daily White House news briefing (which has become a “whenever the White House feels it wants one” briefing) more relevant because his press secretary couldn’t as easily get away with saying “the President has spoken on this,” meaning he’s tweeted on it. But Sarah, what does he really mean? That is if you even know, which most times, I’m guessing, you don’t.

Trump almost never holds a true press conference. We see few presidential statements. He often will talk during photo opps if he has something he wants to say. The daily briefings have become next to useless. When Trump does want to make a splash, he tweets. The media pounces and gives it wall-to-wall coverage. There is no give and take with the president to try to “unpack” what he’s really thinking.

So, what do we do about it?

First, I would suggest the reporters ask Sarah the important Tweet question which is, “Sarah, which is it? Spicer said from that podium (which in the past has legitimately been taken as policy) that the President’s tweets are government policy. Rudy Giuliani fluffed them off saying they are merely his opinion. Which is it?” If they are all policy, we have a different problem.

She surely will not answer the question but it needs to be asked for the record.

The print media could just print a daily report of his tweets in the same place every day and the public thus would see them (those that don’t see them in real time on his Twitter feed) and draw their own conclusions. The print and broadcast media could apply the same news judgement they apply to everything else and only focus on a tweet when it seems relevant — threatening war seems to qualify for that; taking on LeBron James does not.

Both topics, though, pushed the cable news stations to cover those tweets for hours, if not days. Which meant they got off whatever important topic was at that moment being covered.

I know this isn’t easy. But the current practice means that Trump controls the media attention he complains so much about. He is as masterful at using the media as anyone has been and the media should not lay back and be manipulated that way. Determining which tweets are newsworthy I know is difficult. But it seems the media need to try to figure it out. Otherwise they will continue focusing on such unimportant things (for a president) as football players kneeling during the anthem when real issues that matter float by.

I believe the mainstream media has done an outstanding job covering the Trump Administration. And they can get even better without compromising their values if they can figure out how to properly cover Trump’s tweets.

Former deputy White House press secretary (Reagan and Bush 41) and former head of communications at Republican Natl Committee. My blog:

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