We helped create a pass-the-popcorn president. Time for a healthier diet

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“Human nature being what it is, any outstanding actor on the stage of public affairs – and especially a holder of high office – cannot remain indefinitely at the centre of controversy. The public must eventually lose interest in him and his cause.”

So said the legendary New York attorney Roy Cohn about Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, a red-baiting demagogue who for years held the American media spellbound but who eventually alienated the American people. But Cohn’s words have not yet turned out to be prophetic in regard to his one-time New York protégé Donald Trump, who continues to hold so many in his thrall.

Would a re-elected Donald Trump create more eye-catching outtakes than Joe Biden?Credit: AP

In the three-ringed circus that is modern-day American politics, Trump remains the ringmaster: the mesmerising focus not just of the MAGA faithful but the global media as well. His four separate arraignments in New York, Miami, Washington and Atlanta became a blockbuster summer franchise, with a new premiere seemingly every other week.

Last weekend he fixated the news cycle once again, with a characteristically chaotic appearance on Meet the Press, a Sunday morning talkshow that needed to make a splash as it rolled out a new anchor, Kristen Welker. While raising his adversary’s “cognitive impairment”, Trump suggested Joe Biden would lead America into World War II. The perverse irony was lost on no one, from ratings-chasing TV execs to news websites looking for clickbait.

Mea culpa. Even though I have been weening myself off Trump – for five years I covered him for the BBC – it is hard to go cold turkey. Here I am writing about him again. But all of us in the media probably need to try harder to kick the habit. At the very least, we should aim to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016 when, as an industry, we helped facilitate his rise.

One trap that we are already falling into is the journalistic compulsion to balance negative coverage of Trump with equally negative coverage of Biden, as if there needs to be a parity of negativity. Inevitably, then, we keep returning to the issue of the president’s age and mental state, a legitimate area of inquiry for sure. But the problem is that Biden’s advancing years end up receiving a laser-like focus whereas there is more of a strobe effect when it comes to Trump’s 91 separate felony charges.

This is precisely what happened in 2016 with Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal”. To demonstrate our impartiality, and to offset coverage of Trump’s myriad scandals, we kept on returning to her emails. When researchers crunched the numbers, they found that the email scandal received more sentences of coverage than all of Trump’s misconduct combined.

Impartiality is a noble goal, and the bedrock of news reporting, but so often it leads to false equivalence. It can also produce clichéd headline-writing and reportage. “It is evening, isn’t it? An 80-year-old President’s Whirlwind Trip” was how the New York Times headlined a report of Biden’s recent trip to the G20 in India and Vietnam, using a joke that Biden made during a press conference at his own jet-lagged expense as a cudgel.

This time around we should also be less timid about calling Trump out. January 6 brought his authoritarian tendencies to the fore. So let us not merely say that he is unconventional and norm-busting but rather that he is an anti-democrat with dictatorial desires. I am not suggesting that we liken him to Hitler but we should not be afraid to label him an American autocrat.

Using such strong language is a departure from our normal rules of engagement in covering US politics. But in ourselves trying to remain normal, all too often we have normalised him.

Avoiding “both-siderism” and all the journalistic cop-outs that go with it, requires an editorial reframing. As Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, recently commented, the “central conflict” in American political reporting has to shift “from Democrats v Republicans to the MAGA movement v American democracy.” “Be truthful not neutral” has become the mantra of CNN’s veteran correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

In covering Biden, I am not suggesting we suspend our scepticism. Of course we should report on signs of mental decline. Moreover, the alleged transgressions of his son, Hunter, who was last week charged with federal firearms offences, have probably received insufficient attention. But we need also to maintain a sense of proportion absent in 2016.

Back then, I suspect many of us fell prey to one of the strongest forms of partiality in journalism: a “best story bias” which leads us to produce narratives which correspond with the storylines that we most want to cover. Trump was the greatest political show on earth. That is another worry this time around. The somnolence of a Biden second term offers much less journalistic entertainment value than the chaos of a Trump restoration – the ultimate pass-the-popcorn presidency.

Nick Bryant, a former BBC Washington correspondent, is the author of When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present.

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