Commentators such as Politico's Jack Shafer argue the media should ignore President-elect Donald Trump's outlandish tweets - because they are outlandish and because they distract us from things Trump wants us to ignore. Shafer has things exactly backward.
The Washington Post's Aaron Blake writes, "The job comes with the so-called bully pulpit, and what he says matters and will be the subject of debate no matter what the mainstream media does. Everything he says reverberates. It doesn't matter if he says it on Twitter or at a news conference; either way it's going to be consumed by tens of millions of people, and the media has an important role to play when it comes to fact-checking and providing context." We find that logic compelling and would add a few additional points.
First, the media can walk and chew gum at the same time. Cable TV news has 24/7 coverage. Online editions of major newspapers and of the broadcast networks have virtually unlimited pixels at their disposal. Even in print newspapers, the most space-limiting format, room can be found not only for a headline "Trump invents voter fraud," but also"Trump's business connections threaten to deepen the swamp" and"Trump's ignorance of the Constitution reignites concerns."
If one suspects Trump is trying to distract us, as opposed to getting himself distracted to an alarming degree, how much more important is it to explain, for example, that "Trump takes to Twitter to distract from secretary of state paralysis"? (But unless someone is privy to the inner thoughts of Trump, we really do not know the "motive" for his tweets.) In any event, covering tweets does not negate coverage of his other missteps; to the contrary, it should underscore his continued difficulty in performing a job he really never planned to hold.
Second, we would argue that there is no more important story than the continuous stream of evidence of the president-elect's irrationality and instability. Hillary Clinton certainly thought that was relevant to the campaign (it was); the mental and intellectual status of the man we elected should be of even greater concern. We can hardly think of more important topics than these:
- How are we to trust the decision-making of a president so easily waylaid by nonsense?
- Does Trump's lack of attention span and refusal to read make him susceptible to conspiracy theories?
- Can he continue his willful indifference to reality and still govern?
- Do his personal grievances interfere with his ability to function as president?
- Who, if anyone, can reason with a man this irrational?
Third, our allies and enemies are constantly taking the measure of our president-elect. They will continue to assess Trump's presidency throughout the next four years. (Is he easily fooled? Does he have the attention span to stick with issues? Can he be confused and distracted? Is his word reliable?) If every world leader takes into account Trump's public pronouncements and makes strategic decisions based, in part, on those utterances, the voters surely should be privy to the same information.
In sum, no one can assess at this stage whether Trump tweets strategically or compulsively, whether he means what he tweets or simply tweets to blow off steam, and whether he understands the importance of a president's words. Perhaps clarity will come with time. For now, however, his utterances on Twitter and elsewhere give critical insight into the mind-set of the least prepared man ever to win the presidency.
The media's central task now and in the months ahead is to explain to the American people precisely who it is they elected - his shortcomings, his blind spots, his emotional state and his decision-making process. Turning a blind eye to his unfiltered outbursts would be journalistic malpractice. Worse, it would shield the public from the unpleasant reality, the consequences of their electoral decision, which they must now endure for four (if not eight) years.