Unfair Trump Criticism Is a Bad Look for Journalists
John Murray spray-painted the words “Bet they blame Trump” across his boarded-up hair salon in Rockport, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey tore the town apart. He told an AP reporter accompanying President Trump on a visit to the area last week that every time he turns on the television he hears people complaining about the president. "He could go for a walk and they'd find something to complain about," Murray said.
The administration’s handling of Harvey objectively seems to be going well so far. Supplies were positioned for distribution ahead of the storm. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has publically praised the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as the White House, saying the state was “getting absolutely everything we need.” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said he had nothing to ask of Trump after meeting with him during a presidential visit to Harvey-affected areas Saturday.
The administration has been swift to turn on the money as well. Trump sent a request for $7.85 billion for Harvey recovery to Congress Friday night and on Saturday amended the Texas disaster declaration to increase the amount the federal government would pay for storm-related debris removal. In the category of nice gesture, Trump’s re-election campaign emailed 10 million addresses a note encouraging donations to a list of charities including the Red Cross, Salvation Army, United Way and local animal shelters.
In the absence of significant things to complain about, some journalists have turned to pettiness.
Multiple outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and Vogue criticized Melania Trump for wearing high heels from the White House to Marine One when departing for Texas last week, apparently assuming she was sporting her flood gear. One writer for refinery29 – which bills itself as “a modern woman’s destination for how to live a stylish, well-rounded life” -- called the first lady “Flood Watch Barbie.” Several commenters had to update their snarky critiques when Mrs. Trump emerged from Air Force One in the sneakers she had obviously planned to wear in the disaster zone.
The fact that she was going to change shoes en route was available to any reporter worth that job title — The Washington Examiner’s Caitlin Yilek reported early that Trump’s spokeswoman told her the first lady had a different pair of shoes to change into. But with hurricane assistance going well, these reporters were a little desperate . “Criticism of the ensemble must have reached somebody in a position to right the ship,” said The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan, stupidly choosing an interpretation of the outfit change that fit her narrative despite the White House having explained hours before her report that sneakers were the game plan the entire time.
Snarkiness and nitpicking continued after the Trumps landed in Texas. CNN’s senior White House correspondent took issue with the president saying it was his honor to be there. “But isn't this actually your duty, Mr. President?” he tweeted. (As a speechwriter, I can assure Mr. Zeleny that “it’s a duty to be here” would fall colossally flat.) The same AP account that reported John Murray’s sign included some smug editorial dings, such as “The first lady says she wants to offer her help and support not just through words, but also action. She did not say what specifically [what] she will do to help.”
Melania’s shoe kerfuffle and Murray’s sign are examples of what journalists and the political class calls “optics,” a metaphorical snapshot of how something looks. Many reporters have been more focused on the appearance of Trump’s response to Hurricane Harvey than its substance. When it comes to his handling of the first major natural disaster of his presidency, reporters have accused him both of ignoring the optics and being obsessed with them. This determination to criticize Trump’s response to Harvey, no matter what it is, suggests Murray’s scrawl is less tongue-in-cheek than he might have intended. Political commentators might want to consider the optics of their own analysis and whether preconceptions may be skewing their reactions.
The high-water mark for bad optics in storm response remains the infamous 2005 picture of President George W. Bush peering out of Air Force One at a submerged New Orleans. When the picture was taken, the facts were that Bush refrained from visiting the flooded city immediately after Hurricane Katrina for fear of pulling urgently needed local resources away from rescue efforts. His concern was for the people dealing with the disaster and he rightly assessed that his presence at that time would be a burden. Unfortunately for the president, there is sometimes a difference between being concerned and looking concerned. Bush was said to look detached and uncaring, which could not have been further from the truth.
Years later, the 43rd president conceded that he should have done things differently to show that he understood how serious the conditions were. “I should have touched down in Baton Rouge, met with the governor and walked out and said, ‘I hear you. We understand. And we're going to help the state and help the local governments with as much resources as needed,’” he told Matt Lauer in a 2010 interview. “And then got back on a flight up to Washington. I did not do that. And paid a price for it.”
Bush’s recommendation is exactly how Trump and his team handled their first visit to the region. The current president landed in areas that were not as affected as nearby Houston, met with the Texas governor and local officials, and spoke to an assembled crowd of residents comprised of supporters and a few protesters. Katrina was clearly the elephant in the room. “This is not the Superdome,” FEMA head Brock Long remarked Tuesday when talking about Texas shelters, referring to the infamous use of the stadium as a shelter during Katrina.
Similarly, while praising local officials for their work, Trump emphasized he was not issuing any congratulations yet. “We won't say congratulations,” he said. “We don't want to do that. We don't want to congratulate. We'll congratulate each other when it's all finished.” The president was likely trying to avoid the other big optics failure coming out of Hurricane Katrina when Bush praised then-FEMA Director Michael Brown for his efforts, saying he was doing “a heck of a job.” Bush was repeating what he had been told by the Alabama governor about Brown’s performance, but as he said later, “I never imagined those words of encouragement would become an infamous entry in the political lexicon. As complaints about Mike Brown's performance mounted, especially in New Orleans, critics turned my words of encouragement into a club to bludgeon me.”
Trump visited Houston Saturday for the first time since the storm, but not before members of the press complained that he didn’t meet with any flood victims on his Tuesday trip. Apart from the silliness of complaining that people recovering from recent disaster weren’t pulled away to be put on display with the president, any honest observer will admit that had such moments been arranged, they would have been denounced as staged by the same critics. When asked about this criticism, a senior White House official told me that while meeting with victims was slated for the Saturday trip, the first responders Trump met with Tuesday were storm victims themselves, though perhaps not to the extent as other folks in Houston.
Another senior White House official bristled when I asked whether they were keeping Katrina in mind. The official told me that their focus is on the men and women in Texas who were suffering rather than optics, although a number of assistants to the president had worked for Bush and “all those lessons are known to them.”
Ultimately, the goal of good optics is to communicate the truth about a situation. Trump’s widespread unpopularity with the press will mean his genuine moments may not make it into the fourth estate’s recounting. That dynamic suggests that his rallies and Twitter account, through which he speaks directly to the public, will continue to be a major part of his communications strategy. Trump is not the only one the American people are watching, however. Reporters need to remember that unfair criticism makes them part of the story rather than the objective observers their craft demands, and it also undermines their credibility with their audience.