Engaging A Nation

Aug 31, 2016

By now it’s evident that the 2016 Presidential election is not a typical affair.  One of the ways it’s been atypical from a media standpoint is that Donald Trump has been the first major party candidate in modern times to so unabashedly embrace the concept that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” – an expression made popular by P.T. Barnum, the 19th century American showman and circus owner.

When Trump recently told conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that President Obama was “the founder of ISIS” and Hewitt responded that he would use “different language” to communicate a message on the Obama administration’s policies, Trump responded: “But they wouldn’t talk about your language and they do talk about my language. Right?”

Trump’s unconventional media strategy has posed a real dilemma for news organizations. It would be journalistic malpractice not to report on the seemingly flagrant, often cryptic comments of a major party presidential candidate in an attempt to clarify the meaning of such comments for voters.  In the past, such media scrutiny and attention likely would have caused significant negative consequences for a candidate.  But that was then, and this is now.  Given Trump’s political durability, critics now contend that media outlets are being played by Trump, providing him billions of dollars of free publicity.  The dilemma of how much a news organization should cover Trump has inspired spirited debates in newsrooms around the country.

I'd like to hear more enterprise reporting that digs into the policy positions of the candidates and independently explores how the candidates plan to implement those positions...

I have listened closely to NPR’s election coverage and also been part of thoughtful communication threads with NPR’s news leadership.  I have also shared constructive criticism from JPR listeners with NPR about its election coverage.

In April, NPR senior vice president of news, Michael Oreskes, responded to listener criticism that NPR was covering Trump too much:

“… Overall, the coverage of Trump appropriately represents his major impact on the (Presidential) race and the country. What would the alternative have been? Ignore a contender for one of the major party nominations when he says that Muslims should be barred from entering the country? Not report it when he questions whether his party’s 2008 nominee is a war hero? Should we let his claim that Muslims were dancing in New Jersey on 9/11 stand unchallenged (we fact-checked it and found it false)?

NPR and other media organizations have offered a pretty clear portrait of Trump. As a result, the broad public appears to have formed clear and strongly held views about him. That is actually the system working.”

Conveying the consensus view of JPR listeners, I’ve encouraged NPR to focus less on provocative tweets and statements made by Trump which are now known to be a clear attempt by the campaign to manipulate the news cycle.  Instead, I’d like to hear more enterprise reporting that digs into the policy positions of the candidates and independently explores how the candidates plan to implement those positions—stories such as John Burnett’s excellent piece about a group of far West Texas residents who support Trump’s proposal to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and Sam Sanders’ conversation with a mother and daughter who were divided Clinton/Sanders delegates at the Democratic National Convention.

In addition to its national election coverage, NPR is collaborating with member stations around the country to connect the presidential election to local communities.  Through a project called A Nation Engaged, NPR will explore several themes in the coming months in an effort to spark a national conversation around a specific question. The next installment, which runs August 29–September 3, focuses on the question: “What is America’s role in the world?”  NPR’s International Desk will produce four stories which examine America’s economic, cultural, diplomatic and military influence around the globe. Each piece becomes a gateway to further discussion of candidate positions on critical global issues such as terrorism, migration, trade, and global alliances.  Upcoming A Nation Engaged themes will include: Economic opportunity in America, which airs September 19–24, and What does it mean to be an American now? airing October 10–15.

I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned during the coming months for coverage of the 2016 election.  Together with NPR, we’ll do our best to provide coverage that is fact-based, fair, comprehensive and helps you perform your civic duty.

Paul Westhelle is JPR’s Executive Director.