Journalists need to tie down Trump

By Todd Gitlin

Republican presidential hopeful knows how to avoid answering the hard questions, writes Todd Gitlin.
Donald Trump makes many bold statements but is rarely asked to back them up. Photo / AP
Donald Trump makes many bold statements but is rarely asked to back them up. Photo / AP

The constant spotlight fixed on Donald Trump for the last year would have overwhelmed any other candidate, particularly one so evasive. But not him.

Trump now campaigns as pro-life - but he was "very pro-choice" well into his 50s; he boasts that he'll defeat Isis (Islamic State) "very, very quickly", but won't specify how; he claims he's worth billions, but won't release his tax returns. He became the GOP's presidential nominee without revealing anything approaching a clear picture of his mind or his history. How'd he do it?

He cracked campaign reporters' code. And if they don't want to get rolled again in the general election, journalists have to change tactics.

Early in this campaign season, Sunday morning network news hosts granted Trump the special prerogative of phoning in for interviews, off camera, making it impossible to know, in real time, if he was consulting notes or advisers during interviews. And because of an early polling lead based in large measure on his near-universal name recognition, Trump was centre-stage getting most of the air time during every GOP primary debate.

In those debates, and in interviews, Trump regularly runs circles around interviewers because they pare their follow-up questions down to a minimum, or none at all. After 30-plus years in the media spotlight, he knows how to wait out an interviewer, offering noncommittal soundbites and incoherent rejoinders until he hears the phrase, "let's move on". He takes advantage of the slipshod, shallow techniques journalism has made routine, particularly on TV - techniques that, in the past, were sufficient to trip up less-media-savvy candidates - but that Trump knows how to sidestep.

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski regularly host Trump, but almost never interrogate him. Recently, in off-air banter during a Morning Joe commercial break, Brzezinski called a portion of one of Trump's rallies a "wow moment", to which Trump replied, "You have me almost as a legendary figure. I like that."

When they do get around to questioning him, it tends to go like the February 18 televised town-hall appearance where Trump insisted: "I said the [Iraq] war is a disaster because you're going to destabilise the Middle East. I said it long before 2003 ... I'm the only one that said don't go in and I said it in 2003, I said it in 2004 ... There's headlines and magazines. Don't go into the war." To this, Scarborough reasonably asked, "So where did you say this?"

But Trump was able to wriggle away with this nonresponse: "I said it all over the place. It's written all over the place, Joe - 2003, 2004 headlines and articles."

To which Scarborough threw in the towel: "OK."

Then there's CNN's Wolf Blitzer. In a January 7 interview breathlessly touted as an exclusive one-on-one, Blitzer let Trump get away with a hysterical warning about the national debt jumping, imminently, to US$21 trillion ($30.8 trillion), without questioning it.

Blitzer immediately turned to the subject of Saudi Arabia. Rambling in response, Trump said of Iran: "They want to take over Saudi Arabia."

Again, no follow-up from Blitzer after Trump paused his soliloquy.

During the October 28 Republican debate, CNBC's John Harwood substituted snark for serious inquiry. When he asked Trump if he was running "a comic book version of a presidential campaign", Trump rightly chided him, then quickly changed the subject to a comic book answer, blathering on about how easy his Mexican wall would be to build, because "they built the Great Wall of China, that's 13,000 miles".

Both the question and the answer are nearly useless to voters, but if Harwood was going to go that route, couldn't he have followed up by noting that the Great Wall probably took centuries to build, at a cost of what some experts say was hundreds of thousands of lives?

That might at least have pushed Trump to acknowledge the magnitude of the undertaking he's proposed.

Right after that same debate, Trump boasted to CNBC's Joe Kernen, "My relationship with Hispanics is incredible." Though polls consistently show the opposite, Kernen failed to broach any evidence to the contrary.

Trump told him, "The single greatest rip-off of our country is through currency manipulation by Japan, by China, by everybody, Joe" - another point he's made over and over on the campaign trail. Kernen, though, apparently wasn't prepared to note that the International Monetary Fund disagrees: "Since 2015, the People's Bank of China, the central bank, hasn't been keeping the currency cheap. Rather, it's been defending the yuan, drawing down its foreign-exchange reserves in order to keep the value aloft."

To be "fair and balanced", if you will, consider also Fox News. In December, on the subject of Trump's desire to halt Muslim immigration, Chris Wallace puckishly asked if it would take "Donald Trump years as president to be able to sort out the good Muslims from the bad Muslims". But at other times, Wallace has gone hopscotching for one-liners, without follow-up, and Trump has obliged. In October, Wallace asked: "Would you be willing to use the debt limit and risk the possibility of the country going into default to get more spending cuts?" Trump's response: "I want to be unpredictable, because, you know, we need unpredictability. Everything is so predictable with our country." Wallace changed the subject.

Trump is a master of darting from slogan to slogan. That's why interviewers must do their homework and be prepared to go at least two to three questions deep on any issue.

When Trump makes a blunt, sweeping statement like saying he'd "get along very well" with Russian President Vladimir Putin, journalists have to follow up by asking how, specifically, he thinks Putin would respond to increased economic sanctions. If he won't answer, they should do what conservative Wisconsin talk radio host Charlie Sykes did back in March. Interviewers should say, flatly, "You're not answering my question."

- Washington Post

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