Nine Lessons I Learned About Political Reporting While Covering TrumpFebruary 22, 2021
In the fall of 2015, I was having drinks in Washington with a colleague at the time, now-MSNBC host Joy Reid. (I was working at NBC News.) Donald Trump was leading in the polls of the 2016 Republican presidential primary. But I was confident he would not win the nomination.
I told Joy, who is a friend, that Trump was experiencing a sugar high in the polls, not unlike Herman Cain did four years earlier. I predicted the Republican establishment would organize against Trump and embrace the obvious candidate for the party’s future, a kind of a Barack Obama for the right: Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Joy was equally confident. Trump was speaking about racial issues in a way that would resonate with the GOP base, she said. She hinted that neither I nor the GOP party establishment really understood that base. And she laughed as I hyped Rubio. Joy had lived in Florida before moving to New York City to work at MSNBC. She had covered Rubio closely and was extremely confident that he did not have the skills to defeat Trump, particularly if Trump made race a central issue in the campaign.
I remember this conversation from more than five years ago so clearly because it encapsulates much of my experience as a political journalist in the Trump era. In June 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, I had been covering national politics for 13 years, including three presidential campaigns. I had been savvy at times — describing Obama as the likely winner of the 2008 Democratic nomination in January 2007, before he even formally announced his candidacy. I assumed I knew a lot about how politics in America worked.
Then Trump came along.
Over the next five-plus years, I learned a lot about covering national politics. Some lessons came the hard way: By being really wrong. So now that we’re about a month into a new presidential administration, I’m trying to keep those lessons front and center. What are they? Here are nine:
1. Listen more to Black people.
Appearing on ABC News’s “This Week” in July 2015, then-Rep. Keith Ellison (a Democrat who is now Minnesota’s attorney general), said he thought Trump had a decent chance of winning the GOP nomination. The other panelists on the segment with him laughed at Ellison’s remark. I’m not singling them out — at the time, I was mocking the idea of Trump winning the nomination myself, after all.
Ellison, like Joy, is Black, and that’s worth thinking about more. It wasn’t only Black political observers who proved prescient about Trump.This section could be about people of color, as opposed to just Black people. For example, from the start of Trump’s campaign in 2015, Univision’s Jorge Ramos centered his coverage around how Trump spoke about immigrants. CBS’s News Weijia Jiang, whose family immigrated to the U.S. from China when she was a kid, sometimes asked the president very blunt questions about racial issues. I thought fairly long and hard about the framing of this section of this article and will admit the obvious: Perhaps I am biased toward noticing the work of Black people because I am Black myself. Part of this is media dynamics — at least right now, many of the most high-profile writers and pundits are Black; not as many are Asian or Latino. But secondly, we are making a point about not just Black pundits but also Black voters. And Black voters have been more unified in opposing Trump than Asian or Hispanic Americans. But Black political observers were often the ones most bullish about Trump’s chances from the start and the most willing during his campaign and presidency to speak bluntly about his racial and at times racist language and why some of his supporters liked that language. By the end of Trump’s presidency, covering Trump this way was mainstream, but Black journalists were often the ones taking this first approach while white colleagues often cast Trump’s actions in racial terms only when it was no longer controversial to do so. And Black experts were often those who most forcefully rejected the argument that Trump’s appeal to voters was primarily based on feelings of “economic anxiety” or that Trump’s ideas should be taken “seriously but not literally.”
Two Black political experts stand out in particular. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer argued that many of Trump’s supporters backed him because of his harshness toward conservatives’ perceived enemies (“The Cruelty Is the Point,” a Serwer piece was headlined.). And Ta-Nehisi Coates, then at The Atlantic, dubbed Trump “The First White President,” arguing that his rise was best understood as a backlash to Obama. Those pieces were written early in Trump’s presidency but are still memorable because they ended up accurately capturing some of the main themes of his tenure in office.
“After the Trump presidency, it should be crystal clear that newsroom diversity is essential to tell the stories defining our generations accurately,” CNN anchor Don Lemon, who is Black, wrote in a recent essay published in Politico. “Much like we regard the expertise of medical doctors, pilots and educators, we must also embrace, lean on and, most importantly, trust journalists who have both experience covering race, and experience living in Black bodies and bodies of color.”
Another black journalist, the Washington Post’s Karen Attiah, wrote last month: “For many of us, the empowerment of non-White voices in a very White and male industry was never just about numbers, promotions or individual opportunities. It was because we knew that blind spots and denialism about the dark forces in this country would cause suffering.”
Black voters were also prescient about Trump. When I was on the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Black voters, most of whom strongly disliked Trump, were generally the most confident outside of Trump’s base that he could win the GOP nomination and presidency. In 2019 and 2020, Black voters I spoke to were often the most confident that Trump could win a second term and therefore felt Democrats should nominate the candidate who would be least offensive to white people (Joe Biden). The lesson here, in my view, is that Black people may understand the sensibilities of white people, particularly on racial issues, better than white people do themselves.
Not all Black people, of course. Then-President Obama seemed surprised by Trump’s ascent and victory. I also am Black and was slow to the story. Why? First, I (and I assume some other Black people) am not immune to the signaling of our broader society, which implies that the smartest people are usually white and male.
Secondly, most of the prominent Black political observers who were suggesting that Trump could be formidable, like Ellison and Joy, were openly left-leaning in their professional roles. I tended back then to think such people’s opinions were clouding their views of the facts, while a person like me, not in an opinion role, could see politics more clearly. Which leads me to a second lesson …
2. Mix up my media diet.
Going into 2015, I looked for insight about politics mostly from other political reporters or political scientists who focused on the U.S. (as opposed to journalists who are opinion writers and columnists and scholars who don’t specialize in American politics). That’s who I followed on Twitter and that group shaped my view of what was happening. Those aren’t bad sources of information. But Trump himself and how he reshaped American politics often befuddled traditional experts on American politics, who were looking to compare and contrast things that he did with Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and other more establishment politicians.
My thinking about Trump sharpened after I started reading a broader range of work. I learned a lot from scholars who specialized in sociology (the University of North Carolina’s Tressie McMillan Cottom, for example) and history (there’s New York University’s Ruth Ben-Ghait and the University of Pittsburgh’s Lara Putnam), and from writers who had studied governments and leaders abroad (author Sarah Kendzior, for example). I also gain new insights from opinion writers on the left (The New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie) and the right (The Atlantic’s David Frum and Peter Wehner, who also writes for The New York Times). None of these people were overly reliant on traditional models for covering politics and trapped by those norms.
Similarly, before the Trump era, I mostly relied on outlets like The Times, the Washington Post, Politico and CNN to get a sense of political news and a read on what people across the ideological spectrum were thinking. After all, all those publications try to feature both Republicans and Democrats. But the rise of not only Trump but also Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2015 caught me by surprise. And I think that surprise was in part due to my media diet being dominated by establishment-oriented media outlets in which the ideological views expressed generally ranged from Hillary Clinton on the left to Jeb Bush on the right. Now, I’m a big reader of the American Prospect, which covers the news from the perspective of the Democratic Party’s more liberal wing. I don’t watch a ton of TV news, but following the Fox News Twitter feed is usually a much better gauge of opinion among conservatives than the right-leaning columnists at The Post or The Times.
Another way to find more diverse sources of information is Twitter. I don’t have to guess what activists in both parties are doing or thinking — they are often publicly announcing their views and sharing articles they read to come to those views.
Put another way …
3. Don’t be too reliant on political insiders.
One of the reasons that I was so confident back in 2015 that Trump would not win the nomination was that the high-level Republican contacts I had accumulated from more than a decade in D.C. journalism kept telling me he would not win. Looking back, there was likely some amount of motivated reasoning at play there — many of these Republicans didn’t personally like Trump and were surely hoping he would lose.
This dynamic continued for the next five years. Senior Republican officials told me and other reporters the GOP might take the nomination from Trump at the 2016 convention; Trump had almost no chance of winning the general election; his top aides would push him toward governing like a traditional president, and some Republicans would back impeachment over Trump’s effort to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into his political rival Biden.
The wrongheaded reliance on GOP insiders culminated in what in hindsight was a huge media mistake: initially downplaying Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results. .
“The president has no clear endgame to actually win the election — and, in an indication he may be starting to come to terms with his loss, he is talking privately about running again in 2024. Trump aides, advisers and allies said there is no grand strategy to reverse the election results,” the Washington Post wrote in a Nov. 11 story.
Another line in the article was this: “Asked about Trump’s ultimate plan, one senior administration official chuckled and said, ‘You’re giving everybody way too much credit right now.’”
The headline of the Post piece was, “Trump insists he’ll win, but aides say he has no real plan to overturn results and talks of 2024 run.” Not a single Trump aide was quoted by name saying Trump would not contest the results.
The same day, Politico downplayed Trump’s attempts to contest the election, in a story with the headline, “They know he’s lost — let’s talk about the real world.” The effort to contest the election was “mostly performance art,” Politico said, again not quoting a single Trump aide by name making this point.
Perhaps Trump never had a “clear endgame” or “ultimate plan.” But his extended efforts to contest the results suggest that he had not “come to terms with his loss” and that his moves were not “mostly performance art” worth chuckling about. Major news outlets should not have relied almost wholly on unnamed sources in these stories. It’s likely that this kind of coverage — insiders quoted in major news outlets downplaying the seriousness of what Trump was doing — contributed to an environment in which the news media was slow to capture the gravity of what was happening: The president of the United States making a sustained effort to stay in office after he lost an election.. .
And it wasn’t just high-level Republicans and the media downplaying Trump’s actions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi spent much of the first half of 2019 predicting Democrats would not move to impeach Trump and implying Trump would not do anything that forced their hands. You know how that turned out.
4. Move on from both sides-ism.
Some of the worst coverage from political journalists in the Trump era, in my view, stemmed from worries about being perceived as not neutral and objective and therefore biased against Republicans. It is true that individual journalists often lean left personally, although many of them work inside large corporations or for owners who tend to be more liberal on identity issues like immigration but not as liberal on economic policy. (In other words, it is not at all clear the liberal leanings of journalists personally result in disproportionately anti-Republican content.)
That said, the Republican Party has spent years attacking journalists as being biased against the GOP, a contention some journalists have tried to rebut by making sure their coverage is equally critical of both parties.
There are also some business incentives that push media outlets toward trying to appear equally balanced between the two parties. Publications like Axios and Politico are valuable to their audiences in part because they deliver information about what is happening inside in both parties. Regularly suggesting that Trump was saying racist things might have reduced those publications’ abilities to get access to GOP sources and thereby tell those insider accounts.
Even outlets that aren’t as focused on insider reporting, like ABC News and FiveThirtyEight, have rank-and-file conservatives and Trump supporters among their consumers and want to keep them. Those consumers might flee if they view coverage of Trump and the Republican Party from these outlets as being too negative.
So in the Trump era, journalists were often faced with a choice: straightforwardly describe Trump’s behavior, which would sound negative and lead to more criticism from conservatives of liberal bias; or soft-pedal Trump’s behavior and make strained analogies to Democratic politicians to reduce accusations they were being partisan.
Eventually (and perhaps inevitably), many journalists eventually took the first course. Coverage of Trump became very negative. I moved in this general direction myself — from a wariness about covering Trump bluntly and being cast as partisan to covering Trump directly and without hesitation.
As Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron told the German news outlet Der Spiegel in an interview this month, “We had to be much more forthright about Trump’s mendacity, his lies over the course of the administration. We needed to call them that from the very beginning. We were very much operating on good principle; and let’s be fair, he was president, he was duly elected. But he was exploiting that. He was exploiting our principles.”
What I learned and will carry forward is that journalism can’t really come from “the view from nowhere,” a term New York University professor Jay Rosen uses for the posture of neutrality that had become a norm in political journalism. As Rosen has said, that view, among other things, “places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial.’”
But journalism is a reality-based, evidence-based profession — it comes from somewhere! — so of course a person like Trump, who lies constantly, will be covered more negatively than Obama or Biden, who don’t lie as often. Journalism would be severely constrained without the First Amendment being protected by the government, so American journalists inevitably will be pro-democracy and wary of people who exhibit antidemocratic tendencies like Trump. What I am suggesting for myself and other journalists is not to be left wing (or right wing) but to prioritize accuracy, evidence and truth over appearing neutral and centrist.
“Strategy coverage, both sides do it, who’s up and who’s down, winners and losers, controversy of the day, access journalism …. all these forms were spectacularly ill-matched to Donald Trump when he emerged as a threat to American democracy,” Rosen wrote on his personal blog in mid-November.
5. Read less access and insider journalism.
You probably know who Kellyanne Conway is and don’t know who Russell Vought is, but as far as I can tell, Vought had far more influence on the actual policies of the Trump administration. (He served as the director of the Office of Budget and Management.) At times, in the Trump era, White House coverage read like gossip news and Conway was a featured character.
This insider, access-based coverage was a hallmark of the Trump era. But as a reader of news and a journalist trying to tell stories about policy and identity, these stories were often a distraction. They were full of unnamed sources, so it was often hard to know exactly how to interpret the information or if it could be relied upon. (Remember the flawed postelection reporting I referred to earlier.) These stories rarely told deep narratives about policy. . They rarely captured the identity politics of Trump, in part because it was unlikely reporters who described Trump’s words as racist would get access to insiders in his administration.
Access journalism in fact cuts against two of the solutions I described above: reporters of color playing more prominent roles (Trump was often mean to Black female reporters in particular, so assessing their job performance based on their ability to get inside information from Trump and his aides wouldn’t make much sense) and less both sides-ism.
“You use your access in order to move your story forward and that means certain things you’re going to give a pass,” journalist Soledad O’Brien said on the podcast “Hear To Slay” hosted by author Roxane Gay and Cottom, in describing the weaknesses of journalism in the Trump era.
We’re not going to get major news outlets to stop doing this kind of coverage. These insider stories can be fun to read, particularly in a fractious administration. And Trump’s administration was quite fractious. Occasionally, they unearth major news. And for individual reporters, showing you have access to top administration sources can build your career, since editors want to hire people who break news.
But I will not be reading many more stories (or writing any), for example, about Meena Harris until it’s clear to me she is playing some major role in the government’s policies, as opposed to being an interesting person the media writes about often. (Harris is Vice President Kamala Harris’s niece, and is very active on social media.) I hope news outlets do fewer of these stories. More importantly, even if news outlets continue to do insider journalism, they should make great effort to also feature journalists who offer deep insights about American politics, but not from an insider perspective, like Ronald Brownstein, who works at the Atlantic and CNN, and the New York Times’ Astead Herndon.
6. Embrace uncertainty.
I was so certain Trump would not win the GOP nomination in 2015 in part because I had become taken with a political science book called “The Party Decides.” That book suggested leaders in each party often steer voters toward some candidates in presidential nominating contests and away from others. GOP party leaders were almost universally opposed to Trump’s candidacy at first, and I kept assuming this lack of elite support would keep him from winning.
This was an important lesson for the next five years. The lesson, in my view, is not that we should ignore historical trends like those cited in “The Party Decides” (or, as another example, election forecasts, like those at FiveThirtyEight, that aggregate polls based on how predictive they’ve been historically). After all, “The Party Decides” theory was basically right in 2020 — Democratic elites embraced Biden over Sanders and the party’s voters followed.
Where I think I went wrong in 2015 was treating such data and trends as a source of certainty — “this happened before, therefore it will happen again.” They aren’t completely predictive. Now, if someone asks me who is going to win a race, I say, “Candidate X is leading, but anything could happen.” I try not to write off candidates like I did with Trump. I still make predictions about races, but not so I can show how prescient I am, but to test my assumptions.
So in the run-up to the Georgia Senate runoffs, I told everyone who asked me that I thought the Republicans would win those races. My assumptions were Georgia leaned a bit red and some Georgia swing voters would be wary of giving Democrats control of the White House, House and Senate. I was wrong. That’s fine. I think it is useful for FiveThirtyEight listeners and readers to hear my assumptions, since they colored how I covered the race. The key, though, is to treat your assumptions with care and a little fear even. I didn’t ignore the Democratic candidates in Georgia because I thought they were underdogs — I covered them extensively.
That said, even if my coverage of elections and other upcoming events has improved, there is another problem: I am still doing too much coverage of the future. We are in the midst of an extraordinary time in American politics. There is no need to project how Trump-like the 2024 Republican presidential nominee will be. We can’t predict that far into the future and we don’t need to — there are so many important stories about the Republican Party happening right now.
Or, to go back to the example of how media outlets covered Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results: There was a lot of focus on whether Trump would eventually accept the results and that coverage inevitably led to predictions and speculation. But what might happen was much less important than what was happening in the moment — the American president making constant and false claims of election fraud and having closed-door meetings with officials in swing states as their election results were being resolved.
7. Learn more about identity issues.
I was pretty conscious of issues around race and identity before the rise of Trump — I had worked as an editor at a Black news publication, theGrio.com. But like a lot of political reporters pre-Trump, I largely covered racial issues through the prism of people of color — writing stories about “the Black vote in state X,” or “the Latino vote in state Y.” I didn’t really think as much about white people as having a racial identity and how that might shape their political views.
But over the past few years it’s become clear that, on some level, all politics is identity politics, which means I need to read a lot of history about how various identities have formed and read a lot of news about identities that are forming now (like QAnon followers).
8. Cover “government.”
The media critic Dan Froomkin says reporters on beats like the White House and Congress should think of themselves as covering “government,” not politics. That seems right to me. Covering government means we should be scrutinizing and evaluating, for example, how Biden’s immigration policies work.
But you can’t cover government without knowing something about the underlying issues the government is trying to address. So I and other reporters on these “political” beats have to become more versed in policy issues. If all you really know how to do is cover electoral politics, you end up treating every story like an election — who’s up, who’s down, how will this affect swing voters in the next election.
“If you have a hammer, everything’s a nail,” said O’Brien. “What White House and political reporters like to do is the horse race, whose winning, who is coming across as strong.”
Whew. So I learned a lot, but still have a lot to learn. And that’s OK. If nothing else, I am hoping this article itself is an illustration of the ninth, meta-lesson that I learned in covering Trump: Journalists covering elections and governments should be humble. Our sample size is tiny: There have been 117 Congresses, 59 presidential elections and 46 presidents in all of U.S. history. We live in a rapidly changing world. We as journalists have to adapt to these changes and still always assume that we aren’t getting the story completely right.
In my case, I’m already pretty nervous about bungling things. I just wrote a long essay about the lessons I learned covering Trump. But Joe Biden is president now. Some of those lessons might not apply — and surely there will be new lessons from the Biden years. But no matter what, you heard it here first, in 2024, Biden will … I have no idea. I will stay humble and you should stay tuned.