I spent the week talking with major media figures at networks and newspapers. And that was the consensus: President Trump’s behavior is getting worse in type and in frequency. It seems he’s acting more erratic more often. Calling Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell an enemy and comparing him to the communist leader of China — sending the markets into a free fall — is one of the most recent examples.
This raises a question: Are members of the news media tiptoeing around obvious questions about Trump’s instability? What do the daily lies, distortions and contradictions add up to?
This is a story that’s playing out every day on our TV screens and Twitter feeds. We can all see it happening, but it’s a very hard and very sensitive story to cover.
Conway, who asserts that Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, is far from alone. Trump’s mental health keeps being invoked by commentators online and on television.
I recognize that some of this has been going on ever since the election. A vocal group of psychiatrists have been suggesting Trump is unwell for years. And Trump’s fiercest critics have been fantasizing about his removal under the 25th Amendment.
That’s the challenge for national news outlets. All of these stories are covered in the moment, individually, by reporters who use words like erratic, volatile and unstable to describe Trump. But rarely are the words and actions covered in their totality.
To be fair, there’s not really a vocabulary for this. There’s not really a format for covering it. It’s natural to lead a newscast with, say, Trump wanting to buy Greenland. There’s a format for it. Newsrooms know how to cover that.
It’s a lot harder to cover concerns about the president’s wellbeing, because it’s really a series of questions that no one is able to answer. Why does he make it all about himself even while, to pick one example, visiting a hospital after a massacre? Why does he lie so often? Is there a method to the madness or is something wrong? Is he suffering from some sort of illness? Questions, questions and then more questions. No satisfying answers.
There is an understandable aversion to diagnosing a person — any person — based on what’s only visible on television and Twitter.
“But,” she said, “I don’t need a diagnosis to know that the symptoms are pretty worrying.”
There are legitimate ethical questions about having this conversation. Journalists in newsrooms like The AP and CNN are trained to tread very carefully when entering the realm of speculation. The goal is to gather facts, not advance a political agenda.
But there are ways to cover the fact pattern around Trump and his actions that are reportorial, not political, in nature. Some writers and TV anchors are already doing it. By all means, let’s debate the ethics. But the press shouldn’t tiptoe around this story anymore.