During President-elect Donald J. Trump’s last official press conference, the then-Republican frontrunner took some time to chastise Hillary Clinton for the infrequency of her pressers and to not-so subtly-encourage Russian hackers to break into Clinton’s e-mails.
That was 124 days ago.
Since then, there have been a number of disquieting developments in Trump’s ongoing love-hate relationship with traditional media. First he spent a week blatantly avoiding the presidential press pool before rounding up a handful of prominent media figures from NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN for what was described by the New York Post as a one-sided “fucking firing squad” of verbal abuse from Trump. Not long after, Trump arranged, canceled, and then re-scheduled a meeting with the New York Times for reasons he has yet to explain to the public.
To look back on our president-to-be’s past few adversarial weeks with the press, one could’ve easily get the impression that we just, you know, would never hear from him ever again. That might be true were it not for the fact that anyone with an internet connection can tune into his personal Twitter feed.
Trump’s tweets deserve the same amount of attention as the spare few quotes legacy media manage to squeeze out of him.
In a weird way, Trump’s raw, prolific stream of tweets is exactly the sort of social media presence you’d want from the next president. Short of having a one-on-one, face-to-face conversation with Trump himself, this constant stream of consciousness could, in theory, be unfiltered messaging from an American president to his constituents without the concern that his comments were being taken out of context, a frequent complaint voiced by Trump’s supporters.
In the absence of a healthy, ongoing conversation between Trump and the press, the ready availability of his unfiltered tweets might seem like a viable alternative to the decades-long American tradition of presidents giving interviews. But it isn’t, for one simple reason: Donald Trump lies with startling frequency. But since his tweets are not “official” statements, the media has been all too hesitant to call him out on these lies.
Over the weekend, for instance, Trump went on a Twitter tirade during which he falsely claimed (read: lied about) the “millions of people who voted illegally” who prevented him from winning the popular vote.
Almost immediately, mainstream news outlets began to report on Trump’s rant. The New York Times did delicately say that Trump had “no evidence” to back up his claims, but much of that early reporting failed to explicitly call Trump out for lying and chose instead to simply republish his quote:
The slightest bit of digging traced the source of Trump’s claims back to Gregg Phillips, a one-time commissioner for Texas’ Health and Human Services board who tweeted a similarly unsubstantiated idea back in mid-November. Soon after he posted it, Phillips’ tweet was picked up by InfoWars, a conservative site that frequently traffics in outlandish, right-wing conspiracy theories like the idea that millions of undocumented immigrants somehow managed to get themselves registered and stole the popular vote from Donald Trump.
In simply quoting Trump in its initial coverage of this most recent outburst, one could argue that the press was merely doing its best to remain as objective as possible. But to take that position is also to condone the willful spreading of factually incorrect information that, in this instance, focused on the demonization of people of color.
What’s more, there’s a way in which the dismissals of Trump’s tweetstorms as him trying to “distract” the public fail to realize that we live in a world where the President-elect of the United States chooses to ignore the press in favor of tweeting.
“Let’s pause for a moment and consider the staggering level of irresponsibility Trump showed in tweeting that lie,” the Chicago Tribune‘s Rex Huppke argued. “It’s akin to: My crazy uncle told me the world is flat; I reported that on my blog; the president of the United States then declared the world flat and banned boats so nobody would sail off the edge of the Earth.”
Yes, Trump is feeding into the delusional fantasies of America’s Crackpot Uncles and we should be paying attention to that. Mindless trolling or not, Trump’s tweets deserve the same amount of attention as the spare few quotes legacy media organizations manage to squeeze out of him because, like it or not, those tweets are official statements now.
Like it or not, Trump’s tweets are official statements now.
This all leaves us at an important crossroads for how we think of public figures’ social media tantrums and hold them accountable for the things they say online. When other celebrities who make a rule of not talking to the press—but do deign to tweet to their hearts’ content—say racist, garbage things on the internet, both the press and the public rarely hesitate call them out for the things that they say (see: Kanye West, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Caitlyn Jenner). Donald Trump deserves that same sort of treatment because of his newfound position of power, not in spite of it.
Short of a small miracle convincing Trump that freezing out the press is the worst of bad looks, his Twitter feed can and will be one of the most effective means by which our future president will give public comment. Trump has proven again and again that he’s more than comfortable flat-out lying to public. So the press has to be even more comfortable pushing back with facts and framing Trump’s lies as the falsehoods they are.