"Ignore them and they will go away." Many of us have long known that piece of faulty advice never works in response to anything, whether bullies or financial problems. But now, many commentators and columnists are actually trying to use that ill-advised approach to President-elect Donald Trump's tweets. But for our American democracy and the news media business, his tweets really are the gift that keeps on giving.
It's easy to understand why at first, established newspapers and TV news networks would be wary of Trump's ability to command attention on his own with an instantaneous tweet. In many ways, this would seem to inhibit the news media's old monopoly on disseminating information. But to its credit, the news media brushed that worry aside and started covering Trump's tweets quickly and consistently throughout the presidential campaign.
That coverage has continued through the transition period, but since Trump's victory, the number of voices from within the industry calling for the media to stop or seriously cut back on covering his tweets have grown. CNN anchor Don Lemon even went so far as to say on the air last week that if he ran the network, he would not allow any coverage of Trump's tweets.
But Lemon and the others calling for some kind of "Twitter blackout" have it all wrong. And here are the top three reasons why:
1) This is where the media can really shine
Everyone seems to have a smartphone, and thus a video camera and a virtual uplink to the world via social media. So, it's silly for the media to continue thinking it has some kind of control of what makes "news."
But the professional news media still has a very big advantage in that it either employs or has access to the most experienced experts on every possible subject. In many cases, those experts have indeed provided needed clarity and acted as "truth meters" for the things Trump says in those tweets.
And that's where covering Trump's tweets is really a great opportunity. It's not that the news media should stop covering Trump's tweets, it just needs to cover them better. When it does, it reaps the benefits and will continue to do so for years to come.
2) You have to stay tuned!
One of the things TV, radio, and now news websites rely on is repeat traffic. And even when news coverage in America was really just the newspaper business, the best times for the industry has always been when the public is convinced that the news cycle is so unpredictable that it needs to check back several times a day to stay on top of the latest developments.
Trump's tweets provide just that kind of unpredictable/no timetable news. Yes, he really might tweet something explosive at 3 AM! Do you want to risk missing it? Or do you want to risk reading one of Trump's tweets and not knowing exactly what he's referring to or what it all means?
This flies in contrast to the argument that Trump's tweets are hurting the media because they may reduce the likelihood that he'll have to face real journalist questions at news conferences or other public appearances.
The media is always calling for more presidential news conferences, especially during the last two presidential administrations. Frankly, the impact of those news conferences and journalists' ability to "catch" a president in something during the question period is overrated.
With every paper, network, and website covering the news conferences with plenty of advance notice and pretty much in the same exact way, they really aren't a winning ticket for the journalism industry. It's not that presidential news conferences should be abolished or don't have merit, it's just that they are almost entirely scripted and choreographed by the White House.
The president gets to decide which journalists to call on, and he usually knows exactly what each one is going to ask. Plus, as President Obama has shown time and again, the president can simply filibuster with a long speech masquerading as answer.
The Columbia Journalism Review published a stinging indictment of what the presidential news conference has become in 2014 saying: "The answers are long, leaving time for just a few questions from a press corps with already-limited access to the president. Actual news is almost never made, since the White House has new tools allowing it to release and manage news on its own schedule and terms… at press conferences, the overwhelming tendency is to ask about the day's headline or to look for the "gotcha" question, instead of addressing long-term accountability issues."
In other words, the traditional presidential news conference lost its value a long time ago and is indeed more theater than news worthy event. Let's stop fooling ourselves about that. Meanwhile, covering unpredictable and unscheduled tweets that only come at 140 characters a pop is really in the news business sweet spot. Ignoring them would be suicide.
3) Trump's tweets speak directly to the public
Let's face it. Most of America's established news media experts have egg on their faces thanks to the 2016 election results. They basically all predicted Trump would lose and seemed to operate throughout much of the year as if that was a foregone conclusion. One of the reasons many of those experts were sure Trump would lose was the fact that he was tweeting such controversial and questionable messages, day after day. But had the pundits spent a little more time paying attention to the actual voter responses, or lack thereof, they might have been better prepared for the actual Election Day outcome.
Yes, Trump's tweets are out of the media's or anyone else's actual control. That's a good thing. Ask people who don't vote why they choose to sit it out and most of them will tell you it's because they believe nothing will change no matter what they do. Predictable political and economic outcomes are the true enemy of a participatory democracy.
And for years, we've heard complaints about "politics as usual" from not just the voters but journalists too. Let's ask ourselves this question: Is the fact that almost every newspaper, TV news network, and major news website leads with the same two or three top stories every day a good thing for our democracy? The answer is obviously, "no" with very few days in any given year as an exception.
Now, we're getting a big shakeup from the Trump team and some people want to ignore it? That simply does not make sense. Voters want to know that they're being heard and not necessarily lectured to by politicians and journalists. For all their faults, Trump's tweets are a constant example of a candidate-turned-elected leader speaking directly to the public and declaring what he thinks is important.
The news media shouldn't let Trump's tweets decide what its lead stories will be. But ignoring them seems less like the journalism industry trying to keep Trump honest and more like journalists having a temper tantrum because he's found a new way to get around their filter. Journalists can and need to continue covering those tweets in a timely manner, while adding the proper analysis and context and fact-checking.
So before any news organization decides to give Trump's tweets the silent treatment, they should think long and hard about what they'll be denying the public and the serious damage they'd be doing to themselves.