Trump’s looming potential indictments pose a big question for the media: How to cover his campaign?

If Donald J. Trump is indicted, which recent reports say could be imminent, political reporters will face yet another historic first in their long-running saga of covering him.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office is understood to be focusing on hush money payments Trump allegedly authorized to the adult actress Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had an affair with him. Prosecutors have reportedly offered Trump the opportunity to testify in the grand jury’s proceedings. “[If] prosecutors were planning to decline prosecution in this case, there would be no need to invite Trump in to testify,” former federal prosecutor Barb McQuade told Salon last week. “For those reasons, it seems likely that an indictment is coming, and that it is coming soon.”

Even before this most recent round of news and speculation about possible criminal charges, some political reporters were already preparing for what one called an “unprecedented” scenario that promises to cause political and legal tremors in Washington and throughout the country, just as the field for the 2024 GOP primary is taking shape. Trump would be not only the first former president to face criminal charges, but also the first former president to run for the White House while under indictment.

“It will be overwhelming,” said Jerry Zremski, a veteran political journalist who now serves as Washington enterprise reporter for the Buffalo News and lecturer at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. “I think it will be one of the biggest political and legal stories that the country has faced in our lifetime. We’ve never even come close to the idea of a former president being [indicted], so it would be a very dominant story at every step of the process, and that includes the reaction to it.”

“He just doesn’t tell the truth. And if he’s indicted, which [I] expect him to be, he’s going to be throwing everything out there.”

Trump’s legal jeopardy is not confined solely to Manhattan. He faces potential indictments from multiple jurisdictions including Georgia, where a Fulton County grand jury has recommended the district attorney seek multiple indictments against undisclosed individuals who might have committed perjury in the probe surrounding alleged interference in the 2020 election, and the Justice Department, which is investigating whether Trump obstructed justice by refusing to turn over classified documents held at his Mar-a-Lago estate and storage facilities in Florida.

Wherever an indictment, or multiple indictments, might originate, the initial earthquake of coverage — banner headlines and news alerts, countless stories and analysis, wall-to-wall coverage on cable news, a flood of editorials and op-eds, the need for regular updates — will place extraordinary demands on journalists covering Trump, particularly in light of his long-running attacks on the press as purveyors of “fake news” and being “an enemy of the people.”

The case against Trump will be complex, involving issues and statutes that could prove challenging to interpret and contextualize. Zremski said that journalists’ explanations, given “in layperson’s terms as best as possible,” should be “the baseline of fair and balanced coverage.”

But that won’t be enough, he said. “Then of course you’ll have to give the other side. And I know the complaints about both-sides-ism, but every court case has two sides, and it’s not as if we’re going to stop telling both sides of the court case. So even when Trump’s legal team were to respond it would have to be covered — but of course, it would also have to be fact-checked, because there is some history of Mr. Trump employing lawyers who don’t necessarily ground all of their statements in the truth.”

Reporters will also have to contend with the reaction of the candidate himself. Trump’s tenuous relationship with facts, and his willingness to counterpunch and employ diversions, means that anything is possible — and that journalists will need to be especially vigilant and focused.

“I don’t think [this changes the way we cover him]. I think what it does do is it makes it more complicated,” said a White House correspondent for a major daily newspaper. “We’re going to have a lot of tough decisions to make.”

“That’s the article: How is this even possible that this man is still running?”

While reporters are used to Trump’s tactics by now, the correspondent noted they should be prepared for especially “wild, outrageous stuff” and “claims” in the event of an indictment.

“He just doesn’t tell the truth. And if he’s indicted, which [I] expect him to be, he’s going to be throwing everything out there. It’s going to complicate covering him, because you’re going to have this firehose of falsehoods coming at you, and it’s going to be hard to keep up. And yet you have an obligation to readers not to just regurgitate what he says [but to] put some context to it and whether or not he’s telling the truth.”

Beyond Trump’s propensity for obfuscation, how much coverage to give him will also be an important consideration, according to the correspondent — a question that underscores an issue that has plagued the press, and cable news in particular, for years.

From the start of his candidacy in 2015 and throughout his presidency, a significant portion of the media’s coverage of Trump was reactive. Inflammatory tweets and statements were often given equal weight to those that affected policy, a practice that only really ended with Trump’s ban from Twitter in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection and his departure from the White House.

For Zremski, this raises another important issue regarding coverage of a potential Trump indictment and the GOP primary: his use of social media. Will Trump stick with Truth Social and its more limited reach, or will he take advantage of Elon Musk’s decision to allow him to return to Twitter? “That would obviously complicate these decisions.”

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Regardless of the platform Trump chooses, his words and claims will be closely watched by his base of MAGA voters, which could have repercussions for the GOP primary. Trump has already stated he won’t withdraw from the race if he is indicted. But less clear is whether primary voters, both in MAGA world and beyond, would decide to turn to someone with less legal baggage and political drama — or if the charges would provide some juice to what has been, by most accounts, a lackluster campaign so far. Attacks by Florida governor Ron DeSantis and Trump’s former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley could help to mortally wound Trump, who is showing signs of vulnerability according to some polls.

But those attacks could also backfire because, as has been seen time and again, nothing has united GOP voters more around Trump than a common enemy, which he has often defined as the pro-Democratic establishment, a catch-all phrase that includes the media. “He is such an unprecedented political figure that it’s hard to know until you see the indictment whether or not [Trump] fatigue would be replaced by a newfound passion on both sides,” Zremski said.

“I think news outlets are going to approach him with much more scrutiny this time.”

Such conditions would be ripe for horse race journalism, with its “who’s up, who’s down” framing — especially since, as Zremski points out, “that’s a readymade market” for readers who are interested in politics. Media critics often decry the focus horse race coverage places on candidates’ poll numbers at the expense of in-depth discussions of issues and policy that would allow voters to make informed decisions. According to this argument, relying too much on this type of coverage in the event of an indictment against Trump could inhibit in-depth discussions of the complex web of legal and political issues raised by the charges.

“You need substantive coverage,” the White House correspondent said. “I think newspapers in particular made a lot of strides in that. You’re always going to have the horse race coverage, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the other stuff too.”

In her recent book “Newsroom Confidential,” former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan offered a list of recommendations designed to “clean up the mess we’re in,” which she defined as historically low levels of public trust in the media and threats to democratic institutions as exemplified by the January 6 insurrection and lies about the integrity of the 2020 election. “Stop asking who the winners and losers are in the latest political skirmish,” she wrote. “Start asking who is serving the democracy and who is undermining it.”

This “pro-democracy lens,” as she called it, is being adopted by some newspapers, particularly The Washington Post, Zremski said. In the event that Trump continues his attacks against prosecutors and the legal process, such an approach, coupled with a commitment to fairness and accuracy, could provide a helpful, informative frame for journalists in their reporting.

“Presumably, if we find out he’s been indicted, the prosecutors will be very clear to put forth and explain why, and that’s the story,” said media critic and journalist Dan Froomkin, founder of Press Watch, an independent non-profit focused on accountability in the political press, and Salon contributor. “What is he being charged with doing? Not that he’s on the defensive or that he’s being attacked by his political enemies. What happened? What does he do? Is there any alternative explanation to what he did? And then the next step is not to just say and marvel at how he’s campaigning despite being indicted, but to actually look at just how extraordinary that is — to not for a moment normalize the fact that somebody who has been credibly accused of such incredibly serious crimes is somehow still being considered a plausible candidate. That’s the article: How is this even possible that this man is still running?”

Newsrooms will also have to grapple with how often the indictment should be mentioned, and in what context. “You need to remind readers repeatedly that this is a man who is under indictment,” the White House correspondent said. “Now, where do you draw the line? If there is policy discussion about, say, schools, do you really need to put that line in that story? I don’t know. But at these rallies when he goes off on these tangents or in a debate, yeah — I think that is a big part of the story. But is it a part of every single story? I don’t know the answer to that, and I think that is a conversation that reporters and editors are going to be having as we get into the campaign.”

Zremski said that any story about Trump should mention criminal charges in the event the former president is indicted. He pointed to his own reporting as an example, saying he thought it “incumbent” and a matter of “providing to full context” to mention a lawmaker’s refusal to certify the 2020 presidential election when quoting them.

“Every story should have some serious boilerplate explaining and contextualizing just how abnormal this is and the very, very serious charges that have been leveled against [Trump],” Froomkin said. “And I’ll tell you, one other thing that reporters should do is anybody who supports his candidacy should be pressed to answer, Do you think he did these things or not? And, What evidence do you have that he didn’t? Because all [his] supporters are…gonna say, Oh, it’s a witch hunt. Oh, it’s political. But they should be told, Here is the evidence against him. What in God’s name makes you think this is OK? What is the evidence that you have, other than him screaming it’s political and it’s a witch hunt, that makes you believe that he’s not guilty? Why do you think he’s not guilty? Or do you think he’s guilty and [it] doesn’t matter?

Froomkin said he feared journalists might hesitate to push back. Since 2015, reporters have grown accustomed to being in the line of fire of Trump and his supporters, particularly during times when he is under closer scrutiny. As decisions about indictments grow nearer, journalists say they are preparing for the inevitable assaults on their integrity, profession and employers, and the possibility of being singled out for attacks by Trump and his supporters, as they have done with CNN’s Jim Acosta, Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan, and others.

“I think we just have to cover the news and we have to, as best we can, ignore the noise,” Zremski said. “Now the problem is, the noise he makes can prompt others to make noise, and it can become very difficult for reporters who are covering him because there’s such a backlash from the MAGA crowd. But I think as best we can, what we have to do is just simply stick with what’s happening in the legal process as we cover the indictment. What are the charges, what is the evidence—really cover this as we would any other high-profile criminal case.”

Reporters and their editors have learned vital lessons from years of covering Trump, the White House correspondent said. “I think it’s going to be different this time … I think news outlets are going to approach him with much more scrutiny this time. I know a lot of newspapers really watch what he says and they don’t write about everything. He puts stuff out and you decide: is there any truth to what he’s saying, and if there is, is there any news value to it? In the beginning, they wrote whatever he said…and at some point, we started to step back and say, That’s not really news and That’s not helping the political dialogue.”

When the attacks come, the correspondent said that journalists will be ready. “We all have tough skins, we’ve all been at this for a long time. We all know what he does. He beats up on us because it plays well to his base. Our job is to just do our job.”

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