I remember that I started thinking Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE might actually become our next President on May 5, 2016.
"Happy Cinco de Mayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill," he tweeted, finishing, "I love Hispanics!" In the accompanying picture, our soon-to-be President sat at his desk in Trump Tower with one hand thumb up and the other poised over a crispy shell full of ground taco meat, shredded yellow cheese and sour cream.
Ten years from now, this Tweet will probably be held up as a textbook example of a Trump Troll. Before I go on, let me be clear about what I mean by trolling: The act of saying something inflammatory with the sole purpose of getting attention or getting a rise out of someone. The element of intent is critical.
I’m not going to get into why so many people found this Tweet offensive. Plenty of space has already been devoted to explaining why it’s so bad, and you either hear the screeching dog whistle or you don’t.
Many Americans didn’t. What they saw, instead, was a candidate taking a moment to celebrate a holiday and thank a community for it. Then they saw journalists and all of those rightly offended Americans throw themselves into a tizzy, devoting a day’s worth of headlines and Facebook news feeds to Trump’s choice of a lunch dish.
This Tweet, which succeeded so tremendously in getting our collective attention, was ultimately irrelevant. It told us nothing new about his views, his policy ideas, his character. With just a few words and a picture, Trump dominated the news cycle. And no matter what your views of
Donald Trump or the media were before this Taco Tweet, they were reinforced by the way it was covered.
I don’t think Trump is dumb, but I also don’t think he’s an evil mastermind. So I don’t subscribe to the theory, made popular by Politico’s Jack Shafer, that all of Trump’s tweets are written to misdirect us, though some of them clearly are.
I do believe, as many journalists and media critics have argued, that Trump’s tweets cannot be ignored entirely. He’s no longer just a candidate. He’s the President of the United States.
But I wonder, how much power do Trump’s tweets have because they’re coming from the President, and how much do they have because they are then re-broadcast by the media? If Trump’s tweets have an impact, let’s report on that impact, not on the tweets themselves. If we can minimize their harmful impact by reporting on them less, then let’s do that.
Words are important. As a journalist, words are my livelihood. But sometimes, journalists attribute more weight to words than maybe we should. Some words are better left ignored.
AOL reported in mid-February that Wall Street has already started to ignore his tweets. Hedge fund managers, according to Fortune, aren’t building strategies around his tweets because they’re mostly unpredictable noise. I’m not saying we should take life lessons from the financial industry, but the markets can sometimes accurately asses the news value of information.
At a time when the President is tweeting lies on a daily basis and attacking the press in unprecedented ways, it’s particularly important for journalists to remember that our job is to take a step back, examine, and contextualize what happens in the world. This is particularly important on social media. As David Dobbs wrote in The Atlantic shortly after the election: “If you’re a journalist, there is good reason to consider how your quick hot takes on Twitter and Facebook help identify and frame the day’s most important stories.”
Many of Trump’s tweets fit into two broad categories: lies and ad hominem attacks. Oftentimes, the fact that he is lying is not news. The fact that he is attacking individuals or the press is not news. Retweeting those lies and ad hominems, without context or analysis, normalizes them.
The story usually isn’t that Trump tweeted. It’s about something else.
For example, this New York Times piece took a deep dive into the history and connotations of the phrase “enemy of the people.” Trump first used those words in a tweet attacking the press, but this piece doesn’t even mention Twitter.
What else can we do? I don’t know what the answer is, where exactly the balance lies between recognizing the President’s Twitter feed has significance and amplifying it. Part of the problem is the demands the 21st century news cycle puts on reporters for daily content.
But let’s start here: I don’t want to see another cable news show interrupt a broadcast for “breaking news” about a non-policy announcement Trump Tweet.
And if he tweets another Taco Bowl, try ignoring it.
Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a journalist based in New York. Her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Atlantic, NYMag.com, The Hill, Rewire, Vice, Religion Dispatches, Bloomberg, Refinery29 and Jezebel. She is a board member with WAM!NYC, the New York City chapter of a national non-profit dedicated to gender justice in the media.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.