The Media Are Still Making the Same Mistake With Trump

Journalists—and all of us—are better off ignoring him.

A black-and-white photo of Bob Woodward
Jocelyn Augustino / Redux

Bob Woodward has a new Donald Trump book out. It’s called The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews With President Donald Trump. It’s an audiobook with recordings of the Trump interviews that Woodward conducted for the second of Woodward’s three earlier Trump books. Two days before the release of Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, Woodward’s home base, The Washington Post, published a Woodward essay, adapted from Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, on the importance of Woodward’s The Trump Tapes. Woodward has never before released “raw interviews or full transcripts of my work,” Woodward reveals in the Post essay adapted from Woodward’s The Trump Tapes. But Woodward has taken this unprecedented step in his new audiobook because Woodward’s The Trump Tapes is “central to understanding Trump as he is poised to seek the presidency again,” Woodward explains in the Post essay adapted from Woodward’s The Trump Tapes. “You cannot separate Trump from his voice,” Woodward explains. “Trump’s voice magnifies his presence.”

For example, Woodward goes on in the Post essay adapted from Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, just listen to the way Trump, in answer to a Woodward question that Woodward asked while reporting the second of Woodward’s three earlier Trump books, says in Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, “No.” On the printed page of the second of Woodward’s three earlier Trump books, Trump’s “No” is “a simple declaration.” But in the new Woodward audiobook, Trump’s “No,” Woodward tells us in the Post essay adapted from Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, “leaves no doubt about the finality of his judgment.” Listening to all 11 hours and 29 minutes of Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, Woodward reveals at the end of the Post essay adapted from Woodward’s The Trump Tapes, “leaves no doubt” that Trump is engaged in “an effort to destroy democracy.”

There are currently three Trump books on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and Woodward’s The Trump Tapes is poised to join them. For years, Trump’s presidency swelled the American news media’s ratings, subscriptions, and clicks, in some cases doubling or tripling the numbers. When Trump left the White House, these numbers suddenly deflated, with dramatic financial effects. Almost two years on, Trump continues to fill publishing catalogs, cable-TV airwaves, and the columns of websites, newspapers, and magazines, including this one. The coverage is almost entirely negative—yet it can’t help being read as secretly hopeful. The media appear to have no other business plan than to keep pumping the same exhausted hole until the next gusher of grease erupts in the form of a second Trump campaign.

There’s no shortage of reasons to talk about Trump all the time. He’s still trying to destroy democracy. He continues to make politics a cesspool on a daily basis. He retains the loyalty of deep-pocketed donors, media conglomerates, tens of millions of devoted partisans, and the Republican Party. He will probably be the party’s next candidate for the highest office. He’s the most destructive president in American history, a symptom of profound decay in American society. In some ways, the country will never recover from Trump. All the commentary is merited—yet there’s nothing new to say about Trump, nothing to learn. His character is as obvious as it is noxious. He’s been before us for years with no change. During the 2020 campaign, he called for Joe Biden to be locked up. Were you honestly shocked? Would you even be shocked if he called for Biden to be killed?

The “axis of adults” in the Trump administration claimed that they were staying on, despite their disapproval of the president, not because they wanted to be close to power but because, without them, the government would stop functioning, Trump would be unleashed, the country would be destroyed. Journalists tell ourselves something similar—that we perform an unpleasant but vital service in making the public aware of Trump’s depredations, and that our motives have nothing to do with ratings, subscriptions, clicks, and the addictive pleasure of wallowing in the latest outrage. The rationalizations aren’t entirely wrong, but they’re self-deceiving. With Trump, media coverage seldom plays its customary role of speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable, keeping a democratic citizenry informed. No minds are left to be changed by the exposure of another scandal. The opposite is true: The effect of all the coverage is to bind Trump even tighter to his supporters in shared hatred of the media that despise them.

Trump still understands the game he’s playing better than the press does. He does something outrageous—for example, tells Woodward that he, the president, takes no responsibility for the pandemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans. Woodward tells the rest of us in the second of his three earlier Trump books, and then he tells us again in The Trump Tapes. Americans buy the book and read, we buy the audiobook and listen, and we’re appalled by Trump’s shamelessness, appalled and also bored, because nothing is new, and nothing happens. Trump remains where he wants to be: the center of attention, victimized by the media, loved by his followers, handed another stick to pry total loyalty from his party.

It’s a dilemma. Journalists can’t stop covering Trump, but we do him a big favor, and the public none, by magnifying his presence, analyzing the tone of his every utterance, depending on his every obscenity for sales and distraction. If Trump runs again, journalists would do better to follow the money that supports him. Report on the party that has come to embody him. Talk with the people who vote for him. Explore the conditions of their lives. Dig into the issues that move them. Trace the lies that beguile them. And when Trump says nothing new, ignore him.