The Mainstream Media Still Hasn’t Learned Anything About Covering Donald Trump

Courtesy NBC

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” then–CBS chairman Les Moonves famously said about Donald Trump during the 2016 election, epitomizing the toxic relationship between the media and Trump—they knew he was an existential threat to democracy, but as long as he boosted their ratings, no amount of coverage was considered too much.
Much of the media seemed to finally learn their lesson—five years too late—after Trump incited the January 6 insurrection with his election lies. Twitter and Facebook booted him off their platforms. He stopped doing interviews with the major networks. Even Fox News reportedly imposed a “soft ban” on having him on.
But it didn’t last. Facebook, Instagram, and X (as Twitter’s now known) reinstated Trump’s accounts. CNN held a disastrous town hall with him in May, where the ex-president and a decidedly MAGA crowd relentlessly bullied moderator Kaitlin Collins. That led to the eventual ouster of CNN CEO Chris Licht. The media thought it could handle Trump, but he handled them instead.
On Sunday, Trump gave his first broadcast network interview since leaving office, joining NBC’s Meet the Press from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. It followed a predictable script: Trump says a bunch of outlandish and untrue things, the interviewer (in this case Kristen Welker, making her debut as host) pushes back in a very serious way, and in the meantime Trump’s base only hears the lies, not the fact-checks. We’ve seen this happen over and over. 
“I plan on watching the Meet the Press interview Sunday, but this is not encouraging,” NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote after watching one clip. “He floods the zone. She nods her head. And they make content of it — boring, predictable content — for other NBC shows. Pointless and inane.”

That’s not to say the interview wasn’t newsworthy. He all-but-admitted he lost the 2020 election, saying he just needed to win “22,000 votes” in battleground states (he still falsely claimed, “I won”). He criticized Republicans for pushing abortion bans without exceptions for rape or incest or the life of the mother. He said he wouldn’t run for a third term and said it was “very unlikely” he would pardon himself. NBC News had five stories on its website based on the interview.
I’m sure NBC will simply argue that Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination and that it has a journalistic obligation to cover him. That was the same argument the mainstream media made in 2016.
Welker, to her credit, addressed the fact that Meet the Press has been criticized for hosting Trump. “This is a huge challenge for American journalism,” New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker responded on the panel that followed Trump’s interview. “It cannot be that a person can run for president of the United States, be a frontrunner for his party’s nomination and possibly win without ever being challenged by a tough, independent interview.”
But Trump is also someone who incited an insurrection and has been indicted four times. The media has an obligation to cover him, but not to give him a central platform to spout more lies.
Meet the Press will likely get a ratings boost today. The network will brag about how responsibly they covered Trump. And the former president, as he so often does, will have the last laugh.