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As 2024 approaches, the media is faced with the question of how to cover Donald Trump

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CHRIS CHRISTIE: Let me make it clear. His conduct is unacceptable. He's unfit, and be careful of what you're going to get. If you ever got another Donald Trump term, he's letting you know, I am your retribution.

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

That's former Governor Chris Christie at the Republican presidential primary debate Wednesday night. Donald Trump wasn't there, but he was both a subject of the debate and of media coverage afterward. How to cover Trump is a question that's haunted the media since Trump's surprise win in 2016. A 2018 study showed that Trump received around $2 billion in free media and got substantially more coverage than his opponents, aiding his campaign. Now Trump is dominating headlines again as he faces federal indictments and civil lawsuits while campaigning at the same time. Watching this all play out are Brian Klaas, a writer for The Atlantic and professor at University College London, and Margaret Sullivan, a writer for The Guardian. They join us now. Welcome to the program.

MARGARET SULLIVAN: Thank you. Good to be with you.

BRIAN KLAAS: Thanks for having me.

RASCOE: So let's begin with a general assessment of how the press is covering Donald Trump right now. How would each of you rate the quality of the coverage of Trump, his legal proceedings and reelection campaign? And let's start with Margaret.

SULLIVAN: Well, I think that it's not great, but it's getting a little bit better. Since the very beginning, when he first came down the escalator, there was this sort of nonchalant, you know, both fascination with him and also not really understanding that he could actually get elected. And, you know, so now it's been many years, throughout an entire administration, and we have another campaign. I do think that the mainstream press is starting to reflect the consequences of a second Trump term a little bit better, but I don't think they're there yet.

KLAAS: Yeah. I've got a pretty pessimistic outlook on this because I think that what's happening with Trump is that a lot of the things that he's doing, both in terms of what he's posting on Truth Social, his social media network, and what he's saying at rallies, is not cutting through to the ordinary voter. And that's important because some of the stuff he's saying is the most extreme rhetoric of any presidential candidate in the last four, five, six decades. There was a rally in October where Trump floated the idea of shooting shoplifters on sight, so anyone who commits a petty crime gets killed. It's an extrajudicial killing that the leading contender for the Republican nomination floated. And right after that, he floated the idea of joking about Paul Pelosi being nearly beaten to death with a hammer. And there was no coverage of this for three days in The New York Times, at which point it appeared on page 14.

I mean, I think this is the kind of stuff where there's a really big failing of not meeting the moment of understanding that magnitude is important - the scale of the rhetoric, the extremism of the rhetoric - not novelty. And I think what the press is doing is it's thinking, people know Trump says crazy stuff lots of the time. And that's fine, but it's still very important that they see it.

RASCOE: So I guess, how do you balance that from people who would say, he's a candidate. If you give him a whole bunch of coverage, is that actually helping him to spread his message?

SULLIVAN: Right. I think it - you know, you make a great point, and I think it has a lot to do with how the story is told, what the framing is, how much context you bring to it. You know, not to pick on the Associated Press because they do a great job in many ways, but there was a story - I think first reported either by The New York Times or The Washington Post - about how Trump and his allies were basically planning to use the military to quell protests on the street and to invoke the Insurrection Act on Day 1 in order to do this. This is really outrageous stuff. And the AP headline says, "Trump Hints At Expanded Role For The Military Within The United States. A Legacy Law Gives Him Few Guardrails." And it's - you know, it's this kind of very quiet presentation of something that's completely outrageous. It's like - it's not really getting across to the public.

RASCOE: There was this thought that Trump got too much coverage in 2016, airing his rallies, for example. But it seems like now both of you are saying that the press needs to really highlight these things that he's saying.

KLAAS: I think that the criticism in 2016 was apt, that they gave him too much coverage in this $2 billion of free airtime because Trump was not the leading candidate at the time. Now he is the most important candidate in the Republican Party by far. He's very likely to have a significant chance of retaking the White House. And so the magnitude is there, right? It's important to cover him. And I think the risks of covering him are no longer that people will find out about Donald Trump's vile rhetoric. It's that they'll forget how vile it was. Because when you see Trump through the prism of just New York Times headlines, as opposed to some of his truly deranged Truth Social posts - I mean, really, really deranged, where he's talking about executing, you know, a top general in the United States - people need to be reminded that this is not normal.

RASCOE: Are you seeing anything now that reminds you of the coverage from 2016 on Hillary Clinton's emails?

SULLIVAN: Yes. I think that the coverage of Joe Biden's age strikes me as similar to the sort of but-her-emails situation that we had with Hillary Clinton. Yes, it was a legitimate subject. It was a legitimate story. And just as it is that Biden is as old as he is - and by the way, Trump is only - what? - 3 1/2 years younger. But that kind of constant drumbeat, I think, is very similar. And I think that it's off balance and pretty dangerous.

RASCOE: Brian, you know, you gave some examples of the things that Trump has said and some of the violent rhetoric. Another thing that he has talked a lot about is how he wants to gut the, quote, "deep state" - you know, basically just civil servants - and that he wants to install loyalists.

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DONALD TRUMP: We must pass critical reforms, making every executive branch employee fireable by the president. The deep state must and will be brought to heel.

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TRUMP: We will stop the radical Democrats from packing the Supreme Court with far-left justices.

RASCOE: He wants to weaponize the Justice Department against political opponents. Do you think that it's fair for the media, for reporters to call Trump a threat to America's democracy? Does that make them biased against Trump?

KLAAS: So I think that the press has an obligation to be objective, not balanced. And I think that this is a case where - you know, I study the breakdown of democracy. There is nobody in my field who thinks that Donald Trump is not a threat to democracy. And, you know, I think this is where the press, when it often wants to sort of convey balance to be seen as fair, is failing to meet the moment. The press has learned this lesson really effectively, I would say, with climate change, right? You don't both sides climate change because the science is clear. So you put on a scientist, and you don't put them next to a climate change denier.

When it comes to American democracy, because it's partisan, it's not novel. It's not the shiny object. It's not going to generate lots of clicks because it is a repetitive story. But it's by far the most important story in America and, in my view, in the world right now. Because if American democracy breaks down, the reverberations around the world are going to be catastrophic. And I think Trump is not doing this in the shadows. I mean, we have stories that are just showing there's a plan.

SULLIVAN: We're used to covering elections in which, you know, there's kind of a normal seeming - a pretty normal Democrat and a pretty normal Republican. You don't have that now. So really what we're covering is not a Republican versus a Democrat. We're covering a would-be authoritarian versus sort of a normal pro-democracy candidate. And I think if we reframe our coverage that way, which is a very legitimate thing to do, we get away from that fear of being called partisan.

RASCOE: Margaret, you recently wrote an op-ed titled, "The Public Doesn't Understand The Risk Of A Trump Victory. That's The Media's Fault." In it, you argue that if the public were more aware of Trump's platforms or Trump's positions on issues like immigration or national security or gender-affirming care, that the public might be disinclined to support him.

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TRUMP: We'll carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.

RASCOE: Do you think that it's possible that maybe a lot of people do understand exactly what, you know, former President Trump is offering and they want that?

SULLIVAN: I think that most Americans, at their core, want to live in a democracy. I don't think they want to give that up. And so there may be some agreement on issues, but I don't think that if Americans truly understood that they could lose their democracy, that they would support that.

KLAAS: You know, a certain part of his base is going to love whatever he says. But a lot of other people, when they see Trump unfiltered, they're actually quite appalled by it. And so, you know, this is where I completely agree with Margaret, that when you sort of filter things through the critics say, or the both sides even that sometimes happens, sometimes you just need to print what Trump is saying to people.

SULLIVAN: I think that newsroom leaders, I think they need to get together with their politics staffs and their staffs in general and talk about what I wrote my column about. We - the public is not getting the importance of this election. They're not getting what the stakes and the consequences are. How can we go about changing that? How can we get across the extreme nature of this? It has to do with emphasis. It has to do with where you put stories, what kind of articles you do, what the headlines are. You know, it calls for a rethinking in newsrooms of how to communicate to our readers and viewers.

RASCOE: That's Margaret Sullivan of The Guardian and Brian Klaas of The Atlantic. Thank you both for joining us.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

KLAAS: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELVON LAMARR ORGAN TRIO'S "FROM THE STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.