Editor’s Note: Brad Todd is a founding partner at OnMessage, Inc., an advertising agency where he has produced ads for Ron Johnson, Rick Scott, Bobby Jindal, and many others. He was formerly a partner in the Todd & Castellanos Creative Group and founded Coach to Cure MD, a charity project involving America’s college football coaches to raise awareness and research dollars for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The views expressed here are his own.
Brad Todd: Voters take Trump seriously but not literally, while journalists take him literally, but not seriously
Journalists, like politicians, over-value words -- and they are now covering a politician who does not, he writes
Just before the dawn of the Trump administration, journalism in Washington, DC, faces an existential crisis – but virtually no one in the profession is willing to diagnose it.
Here it is: For the first time, words don’t matter.
In August, as a guest on MSNBC’s Meet the Press Daily, I noted that voters take Donald Trump seriously but not literally, while journalists take him literally, but not seriously.
The rubric got traction on social media, became the headline of a widely read piece for The Atlantic by savvy columnist Salena Zito, and has been oft-repeated by other commentators, including tech pioneer and Trump backer Peter Thiel in a much-watched National Press Club address.
Months later and on the far side of the election, the press is still taking Trump more literally and less seriously than voters do. The most recent case in point is the furor over his baseless claim on Twitter about voter fraud, that “millions of people who voted illegally” cost him the popular vote. It’s the latest instance of the media buying into Trump’s outrage-tweeting strategy.
And journalists keep falling for it because they, like politicians, over-value words – and they are now covering a politician who does not. President-elect Trump still takes the same cavalier approach to verbal description as he would in hawking a condo tower that’s yet to be designed. And more than enough voters don’t seem to mind.
Trump has spent a career interacting with journalists, but as the first president never to serve in the military, the cabinet, or another public office before his election to the White House, he’s never been immersed in the word culture that drives political journalism.
Journalists are conditioned to believe that words are the ultimate product, to be curated, sweated, grinded and polished. The profession slavishly follows the Associated Press Style Manual, which is hotly debated on every revision, to achieve industry-wide consensus on exactly which words are forbidden and which verbal shortcuts are allowed. Any exceptions to that manual come in the form of a style manual unique to each publication or network, a supplemental set of inviolable stone tablets.
This devotion to words as product breeds a detailed process. At every newspaper in America, the beat reporter submits his or her story to a department editor, then a copy editor, then sometimes to a managing editor – with specific words parsed and pored and debated at each stop.
Many politicians have similar processes, with each speech, letter, and even tweet reviewed and wordsmithed by teams of people whose careers are dedicated to the craft of words. These teams are made up of many who came through the exact same journalism school training as the reporters who now critique their words.
But real estate developer Donald Trump’s training on words is entirely different – and the press has yet to adapt to it.
It seems that not a day now passes in which Washington reporters don’t dig up an old statement or tweet of Trump’s and discover a contradiction with a fresher statement or tweet from the President-elect. Most recently, when Trump announced he had chosen South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to be his ambassador to the United Nations, journalists raced to re-tweet a March rant from Trump in which he said the people of South Carolina should be embarrassed by her.
The task for journalists covering Trump should be to get into the mindset of their readers, and out of the mindset of their own newsroom bureaucracies. Writing endless columns on this or that flip-flop based on Trump’s conflicting rhetoric is wasting the time of the readers and viewers who have decided that’s not what matters with this particular President-elect.
The public – also known as “customers” of for-profit news outlets – sees Trump’s words differently than journalists do. They, or at least the members of his winning electoral coalition, see Trump not as a politician but as a businessman. They know, and even value, the fact that his words have not passed through a gauntlet of spinners, prose smoothers, and fact-checkers.
They may have met other real estate professionals in their own lives and they know better than to take the words of ad hoc marketing seriously. These supporters are not giving Trump a benefit of the doubt. They recognize his professional DNA, and journalists are overdue to recognize this discernment by their own audiences.
Trump has spent a career being judged by the monetary value of his transactions and the certainty with which he can turn dirt into concrete and steel. Those are the metrics he expects to be judged by as President as well. If the economy and the federal budget are better off after his term, he’ll be re-elected in spite of his words. If the dollars and the concrete in America are in worse shape, he’ll lose.
He won this year in spite of his words and he can succeed as President in spite of them, too – so long as voters continue to take him seriously but not literally.
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Donald Trump’s electoral coalition has shaken up American politics in ways few expected. Smart operatives in both parties are already trying to adapt practices and metrics to better suit the wave of change Trump rode.
The Washington press corps, already suffering through a decade-long decline in viewer trust and consumption, would be foolish to not adapt as well. If the press covers Trump the way it covered prior presidents – too literally – it may find its own customers take journalism itself a lot less seriously.