Last week, Donald Trump won some easy headlines picking a fight with CNN’s Jim Acosta. He’d just lost the House and fired Jeff Sessions. What better way to change the headlines than taking on the people who make them?
I found this troubling for three reasons:
- Trump can still control a great deal of media attention by expending relatively little time and energy.
- Journalists are still using a dated playbook to respond to Trump’s trolling.
- A lot of 2020 contenders will also use the same playbook and need to rethink how they approach confrontation with Trump.
We have to recognize that Trump is talking, acting, and thinking like a heckler. He’s constantly trying to push other people who have stage time off their game, so he can dominate the conversation.
Good stand-up comedians don’t take the statements hecklers make at face value or respond to them seriously. When a drunken crowd member starts yelling, “Do your old stuff!” a comedian doesn’t launch into a three-minute explanation of why they’d like to share their new material. They do things like pretending to check their watch and saying, “Geez, you started drinking early, huh?” Stand-ups are good at disarming their hecklers and getting back to the points that are important for them: their routines and serving their audience.
Journalists and 2020 contenders need to start thinking the same way about their confrontations with Trump.
Breaking Down the Acosta Confrontation
Check out the whole confrontation Trump had with Acosta and NBC’s Peter Alexander. It may sound odd, but journalists respond to Trump the same way scientists respond to attacks from politicians, and that’s not a good thing. When scientists are faced with criticism of their work on, say, climate change, their first instinct is to explain their methods and defend their integrity. Their work is quality! They’re good people! But to an outsider, those issues are opaque. We don’t know how scientists calculate global temperatures. And if we’re not in a scientific profession, someone’s integrity in that field is generally a blank slate to us.
Instead, I advise scientists to talk about why their work is important for the audience: We need climate research to protect our planet. It’s absolutely vital, for example, to know where and how to build on our coasts in a world of rising seas. Climate science helps us protect the people, places, and communities we love. And that’s why it’s wrong for politicians to attack climate scientists—not just because they’re factually wrong and insulting to the good work scientists do.
When Trump berated Acosta for several minutes during his press briefing, he had a very clear narrative about Acosta and CNN in saying they’re rude and nasty and out to get him and how his base can’t possibly trust them. Acosta kept trying to do his job by asking questions about Mueller and Russia while never directly addressing Trump’s outburst.
Then Peter Alexander stepped in to note, “In Jim’s defense, I’ve traveled with him and watched him. He’s a diligent reporter who busts his butt like the rest of us.”
Well, that’s nice, but it’s not why journalism is important or why the president lashing out at journalists is bad. Trump dismissed his comment handily by griping, “Well, I’m not a big fan of yours either.”
And the room laughed, including a lot of journalists. Because they’re all smart enough to understand Trump is putting on a show for his base. And, frankly, it was a good line.
Shove the troll right back in Trump’s face.
But I can’t emphasize enough how bad Acosta and Alexander’s responses are as a strategy. Admittedly, journalists aren’t political strategists, but they’re losing the war in explaining and demonstrating why their work matters. Most people have no idea how journalism works or what journalists do. They certainly don’t care about Acosta’s professional reputation; they’re just not invested in it. But journalists are. So Trump’s surefire way to eat into the news cycle and push headlines he doesn’t like further down our news feeds is to attack the press on the terms that only matter within their professional circles and then watch them launch into histrionics to defend their profession.
Trump has figured out how to troll the media and divide attention in ways that benefit him and his base, but those ways mean almost nothing to the vast majority of Americans.
Responding to Trolls, Even When They’re the President
Journalism matters for the same reasons a lot of publicly funded science matters: People deserve information about policies that affect their lives.
When Trump attacks the press, the strongest response isn't to say that journalists are good workers or even that the Fourth Estate and the First Amendment keep our democracy running. The strongest response is to get to the heart of the troll: Why is the most powerful person on Earth using his precious time to engage in media criticism?
Shove the troll right back in Trump’s face. For instance:
- “Mr. President, do you think your media criticisms are a distraction from helping veterans receive the health care benefits you promised them but have failed to deliver?”
- “Mr. President, why do you respond so defensively when we ask simple questions about your policy agenda? Are you not confident that you know the answers to our questions about how your policies are affecting Americans?”
- “Mr. President, how much of your day do you spend watching CNN? Are there meetings you have refused to participate in because watching television was a bigger priority for you?”
- “Mr. President, did Jim Acosta hurt your feelings just now? Do you think your fights with CNN are distracting you from your job?”
These are stronger responses, and they would produce more flailing anger noises from Trump. If you ask him about veterans, but he’s still fuming about how mean you were to Sarah Sanders last week, that says a lot about how much he really cares about veterans. More important, responses like these avoid making statements or counterclaims, so they allow journalists to keep doing their jobs by inviting the president to focus on his.
Everyone must recognize the media is not working like it used to. The political right has created an insulated information bubble for its base and weaponized it. There’s no way for mainstream media outlets—or liberal politicians—to break through to those audiences anymore. Instead, we need to focus on why policy and politics matter.
2020 Contenders: Hire Stand-ups and Learn to Respond to Trolls
Trump’s greatest strength as an outsider is that he’s a relentless marketer and showboat. Most politicians are not schooled in these professions, and many have probably never watched WWE, let alone considered taking a Stone Cold Stunner.
Many of the responses to Trump start with the assumption that he should be fact-based, civil, and dignified. When he isn’t, politicians point it out and say how disappointed they are. But the office does not make the man. We cannot expect dignity from the ignoble and civility from the violent. We cannot point out hypocrisy for people whose only principle is accumulating power.
I’m worried because I don’t see Democrats pushing back in ways that can break through yet. The next Democratic nominee will get “swift boated,” and they have to be ready with a response. The swift boaters were a front group that attacked Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004 on his biggest strength: his service in Vietnam and his advocacy for ending an unjust war. Their attacks were successful. (It’s worth noting that one of the first promoters of the swift boat attacks went on to work for Sen. James Inhofe to promote climate denial and threaten legal action against climate scientists. Reality denial is a hell of a drug, and there’s certainly a market for it in Washington.)
But Kerry and his team assumed the attack was so outrageous and so outlandish that it would disintegrate under media scrutiny. Instead, mainstream media outlets covered the fake story in the right-wing press, just like they covered the so-called caravan this year. Kerry’s response to the swift boat attacks was detailed, thorough, and fact-based:
The campaign for Democratic Party presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts issued an exhaustively researched and extensively sourced 36-page refutation Thursday of allegations Kerry lied about events during his service in Vietnam, including how and why he received medals, and had fled the scene of a battle.
However, trolls don’t care about facts or data or science or research or personal integrity. They’re just trying to assert their dominance and throw you off your game. When we respond to them with detailed analysis, we play into the troll.
What would a better response have been? Treat them like hecklers:
- “George W. Bush dodged the draft with his family’s connections, so of course his supporters have to make stuff up about Sen. Kerry’s military service. Any media outlet that covers this BS story is carrying water for right-wing stooges and insulting veterans who served in the war.”
- “We’d like to invite to George W. Bush to come meet with the men who served with Sen. Kerry. They can tell him about piloting a swift boat under enemy fire, and he can tell them about how he drank a million beers riding a desk in Texas.”
- “We’re focused on helping veterans, not attacking them. This is a ridiculous attack from desperate hacks and Sen. Kerry has the scars to prove it.”
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But each of the upcoming Democratic nominees will be tested by Trump and the Republican attack machine. If someone learns to respond to Trump like a stand-up comedian responds to a heckler, Trump will be a one-term president. If not, I think we’re in for another long night on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.