It may be 'foolish' to ignore Trump's tweets, even when they look like 'fluff'

Everything the U.S. president-elect does, says and writes now matters. Unless it doesn't, say media critics, amid a debate over whether the world can afford to tune out tweets by Donald Trump.

Block or follow tweeter-in-chief? Trump's Twitter habit poses conundrum

Republican U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's preferred communications strategy heavily favours Twitters, giving him a direct line to voters. Media critics and journalists have debated whether it's best to ignore his tweets to focus reporting resources elsewhere. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Here are some words sent from Donald Trump's Twitter account that, depending on who you talk to, did or didn't matter in the last two weeks. 

"Cancel order!" he wrote about Boeing's Air Force One development contract.

"I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," he claimed without proof.

"[T]here must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!" he threatened about a flag-burning incident.

"The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence," he complained.

The latest salvo came Wednesday night, when Trump issued a pair of tweets directed at a union leader at Indiana's Carrier plant who publicly questioned how many jobs the president-elect actually saved the company with his recent high-profile announcement.

Trump tweeted: "Chuck Jones, who is President of United Steelworkers 1999, has done a terrible job representing workers."

Whether you follow him or block him, the U.S. president-elect's 140-character musings are, to borrow an analogy, either newsworthy pickings from the social-media Skittles bowl, or candy-coated poison for political journalism.

'Stupendously undisciplined writer'

Deciding what's what has become the conundrum, the source of duelling campaigns over whether the world can afford to tune out the tweets of a 70-year-old conspiracy theorist who happens to be America's next commander-in-chief.

"Trump offers up novel problems for the media," says Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in California. 

While the idea of ignoring the president-elect's publicized thoughts amounts to "gross malpractice" for reporters, Wasserman says, Trump is also "a stupendously undisciplined writer and speaker whose tweeting oftentimes has no more importance than doodling at a desk."

The White House press corps takes the position that anything the U.S. president-elect does, says and writes can be newsworthy. It stands to reason, then, that any assertion or off-the-cuff remark might be too world-rattling to simply let slide.

Air Force One sits on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Tuesday, the same morning that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump urged the government to cancel the purchase of two new jets from Boeing saying they would be too expensive. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

That tweet about "cancelling" Boeing's Air Force One contract would have been easy to dismiss as more of the usual Trump bluster — except for the drop in Boeing's shares immediately afterward.

Likewise, it might have been fine to pay no mind to the bogus claim that "millions" of fraudulent voters stole the popular vote from Trump. Unless you consider it reckless to leave such an unsubstantiated declaration unchecked.

Then there was Trump's threat to jail flag-burners, a proposal so provocative it raised questions about First Amendment protections.

As for his Twitter feud with the stars of Hamilton? It certainly buried the previous day's bad press about settling the  Trump University lawsuit for $25 million. 

Trump's preferred medium likely makes a difference. The Twitter bully pulpit gives Trump a direct communication pipeline to his nearly 17 million followers. His very same meanderings might still be news if they were shouted from a rooftop. Unlike in a press conference environment, though, Trump can evade tough questions while controlling the news agenda.

"There's no push-back on Twitter," says Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar and media critic with the American Enterprise Institute. "We're in uncharted territory here. We've never, ever had a president communicate this way."

Tweets distract like 'shiny object'

To Ornstein, how the news media reacts to Trump's Twitter feed is "a bit like what you'd see with a four-year-old."

"'Here's a shiny object, look at it,' and meanwhile they're looting the house."

The diversion, Ornstein says, eats up bandwidth that could be devoted to pressing Trump on his cabinet appointments, his breaks with traditional diplomacy and his business conflicts of interests.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump speaks to members of the news media in the main lobby at Trump Tower in Manhattan on Tuesday. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Critics have suspected it's calculated subterfuge. Ornstein isn't so sure. He has a remedy either way.

"Ignore these tweets," he urges. "And if we're not ignoring it, then at least have a press corps that … says yes, it's a shiny object, but I'm going to keep my eye on the serious stuff."

While wholesale disregard for the next president's tweets may not be the best way to serve the public's interests, neither is treating those tweets as enormously consequential, notes Kelly McBride, a media ethicist with the Poynter Institute.

Still, it can be a losing game for journalists. 

Clues into Trump's thinking

"Breathless coverage of hyperbolic tweets without any context reaches two audiences in different ways: Trump-haters go through the roof. Trump-lovers dismiss journalists as partisan," she wrote in an email to CBC News.

Reporting on Trump's tweet about nixing the Boeing contract for Air Force One becomes important when it asks and answers next-level questions, McBride says.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's phone call on Dec. 2 with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, left, was a break with long-held diplomatic protocol that may have angered Chinese President Xi Jinping, right. (Jorge Saenz, Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Luis Hidalgo/Associated Press)

"Can he legally do that? What would the economic impact to Boeing be? What about Boeing's workforce?"

An apparent fixation on Trump's personal scandals and erratic Twitter habits at the expense of more policy-focused reporting became a criticism of the media in the wake of his election win. 

Mitchell McKinney, director of the Political Communications Institute at the University of Missouri, was among those levelling criticism, though he now believes there's value in trying to gain as much insight as possible into the mind of a president who refuses to engage with the media.

"It's different now. We're trying to discern the thoughts, the directions, the thinking of a president whose counsel is kept private," he says. "We have to read the tea leaves. This is another avenue into that, and it would be foolish and unwise for us to just ignore it."

At a time when a Trump surrogate can boast that "there's no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts," McKinney wonders if it's wise to never take Trump's tweets literally.

"Ignore him at your peril. We label it as non-consequential fluff at our own peril. How do we know which of his claims are literal, and which are not?" he says. 

"All I can say is, good luck to the media."


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong