June 19, 2024

New York

News organizations are still struggling over how to cover Donald Trump.

Years after he crashed onto the political scene and ascended to the Oval Office, in large part by exploiting the press’ insatiable appetite for spectacle, the nation’s top news organizations continue to give oxygen to the disgraced president’s trivial stunts.

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

The latest example comes by way of Bob Woodward. Trump this week filed a $50 million lawsuit against the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, alleging that when Woodward published audio of their interviews in his audiobook it breached his rights by constituting copyright violations.

The action is just one of countless threats and lawsuits filed by the former president against journalists and news organizations over the years that generated big headlines and were exploited by Trump for political gain, only for them to later be unceremoniously tossed out by the courts.

Most legal experts CNN contacted on Tuesday quickly dismissed Trump’s lawsuit against Woodward as meritless. Here’s a sampling of what they said:

► Charles Tobin, a First Amendment attorney, said it “has no legal merit whatsoever” and is “just another example of Trump trying to control the news.”

► Ted Boutrous, another First Amendment attorney, said the Constitution protected Woodward’s right to publish the audio, adding, “This is yet another frivolous lawsuit by Donald Trump intended to punish and chill freedom of the press that once again displays his complete misunderstanding of journalism .”

► Floyd Abrams, the renowned First Amendment attorney of Pentagon Papers fame, said he “can’t think of a less successful litigant of public note than Donald Trump” and said he didn’t see “any clear basis for Trump maintaining that Woodward agreed that the on-the-record interview could not be published or otherwise disseminated by Woodward as he did.”

► Rebecca Tushnet, the Frank Stanton Professor of First Amendment Law at Harvard Law School, described “most of the claims” in the lawsuit as “obviously garbage,” explaining they are “preempted by federal copyright law.” (Tushnet, however, did say that the underlying copyright issue is interesting, given there is little case law on the subject.)

It only took CNN a few hours to collect this expert commentary. But instead of major outlets pausing to gather this much-needed context after Trump filed his suit against Woodward, most newsrooms simply published stories echoing his complaint. In effect, news outlets like the Associated Press, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, NBC News, POLITICO, Axios, CNN, and others ran stories that played directly into Trump’s hands.

And while some stories, like CNN’s, noted the former president has a history of filing lawsuits that ultimately get tossed out of court, the stories still gave Trump the headlines he wanted and amplified his lawsuit’s allegations, all without offering readers much needed context from independent legal experts.

Yes, these outlets also published a comment issued by Woodward and his publishers, Simon and Schuster, defending their actions (although some rushed to publish so frantically that they didn’t even wait for the response.) But weighting their argument equally against Trump’s does ‘t seem to be adequate when covering a figure who is known for lying, maligning the press, pulling political stunts, and — especially — filing frivolous lawsuits against perceived enemies.

In fact, the manner in which most newsrooms covered this story was particularly disappointing given that just earlier this month, a federal judge admonished Trump and his legal team for filing what was deemed a frivolous lawsuit. In that case, Trump and his lawyer were ordered to pay a staggering sum of nearly $1 million.

Judge Donald Middlebrooks pointed to Trump’s “pattern of misusing the courts to serve political purposes” as he took note of several other failed lawsuits Trump has brought in recent years. “Mr. Trump is using the courts as a stage set for political theater and grievance. This behavior interferes with the ability of the judiciary to perform its constitutional duty,” he wrote.

It is also dismaying given the larger discussion among the press over the years about not succumbing hook, line, and sinker for Trump’s stunts. If the press is still failing to do its due diligence on a simple story like this, that does not bode well as the country hurtles toward what is already gearing up to be an ugly 2024 presidential race.