A week and a half ago, a spell seemed to break: Donald Trump began profusely lying on live television, and several networks cut the feed. It was treated as a minor miracle, proof not only that the press had finally learned how to cover the president but also that, in the near future, the president would recede from view. A better world suddenly seemed possible, one in which Donald Trump did not own significant real estate in America’s psyche.
In the days since Joe Biden became president-elect, the president has fought to retain his grip on the country’s attention span, in ways both pathetic and terrifying. There have been authoritarian purges across several government departments, challenges to obviously legitimate vote tallies, and absurd claims of fraud. Meanwhile, the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was making an ass of himself in a federal courtroom in Pennsylvania. Trump has tweeted incessantly about the various wrongs that have been committed against him and insisted that he actually won the election, which he didn’t. He has, in the most inept fashion possible, attempted a coup, which as it happens, has allowed him to avoid being a typical lame duck.
It has been a preview of Trump’s ex-presidency. He will lack the power of the office, but it’s clear that he will not recede from view. He will continue to tweet, continue to allege that he was cheated out of the presidency, and likely attempt to act as a kind of shadow president, undercutting Biden via tweet.
For the press, which knows the incentives of covering the president—he brings eyeballs, which bring money—the Trump postpresidency will serve as a crucial test. Breaking the press’s Trump addiction is an imperative for breaking the nation’s Trump addiction. For much of the last five years, he has set the news agenda for every mainstream outlet. Will that finally change?
When it comes to covering Trump, some best practices have emerged: to edit, provide context, and, above all, not just roll the cameras whenever he starts speaking. But if there were ethical questions about how to cover the president’s biliousness and lies, there was never really any question about whether to cover them. Anything the president does, particularly anything outrageous, is inherently newsworthy.
That, at least, will change when he leaves office. Trump will be a private citizen, just another conservative septuagenarian Florida man, out to hit the links as much as possible. Even as the press dutifully covers his ravings about election fraud, there is a palpable sense of exhaustion. The promise of a Biden victory, for both the public and the press, was to make all this insanity go away. Many who have been on the front lines of covering that insanity are clearly ready to cover something, anything, else.
But the incentives of breathlessly covering the president’s every tweet and statement are still there, waiting to roar back once ratings inevitably dip. Trump’s status as an unprecedented generator of fodder for cable television has resulted in a financial windfall, no small accomplishment in the cord-cutting era: The New York Times and The Washington Post have gained millions of subscribers, despite having been in financial turmoil less than a decade ago. The president knows this, tweeting that he’s the “golden goose.” One consistent part of his attention-getting strategy—as candidate, president, and now lame duck—has been to do whatever it takes to make sure that he was constantly being covered on television. It’s totally within the realm of possibility that his attempts to steal the election are really just designed to cause havoc and keep himself in the news.
As ex-president, Trump will undoubtedly do the same thing: behave outrageously in the hopes of garnering media attention. He is also the unquestioned leader of the Republican Party, even if he will not hold any elected office. GOP leaders are in lockstep with him, backing all of his obscene allegations of widespread voter fraud. Should Trump declare his 2024 candidacy before or shortly after leaving the White House, he would become an even more daunting problem for the media. Not only would his presumably insane comments have the authority of an ex-president, but they would also be coming from the Republican Party’s primary front-runner.
Trump will, moreover, have some networks that still cover his every move. He has railed against Fox News for failing to be its usual sycophantic self and propped up two of its competitors, Newsmax and One America News. His cheerleading may portend ownership stakes in the latter two, but it may also be a reward for continuing to lavish attention on him. The elevation of these networks is a reminder to the others, particularly Fox: Cover me all the time or pay the price.
The spotlight will also continue to shine on Trump’s term in office. Books about the president—including a likely memoir from the man himself—will continue to flood the marketplace. New, likely damning information will emerge about his administration. There will be calls to prosecute Trump, for both his conduct in office and his finances. This is warranted attention—certainly more warranted than whatever he tweets from a Palm Beach golf course.
But it also comes with risks. Biden has promised the kind of no-drama administration that Barack Obama ran, which could lead to news vacuums—something that literally has not happened in years. For media outlets, the target-rich environment Trump foments could also lead to less scrutiny for the Biden administration. “Journalists are likely to spend as much time doing forensic analysis of the past president’s conduct as they are of the new president’s programs and policies,” warned Bill Grueskin in Columbia Journalism Review.
Media outlets know how to cover everything the president does. They now know how to turn the cameras off. But they’ve never figured out how to properly contextualize the attention-grabbing spectacle that Trump generates wherever he goes. The learning curve between now and Inauguration Day will be steep.