During my 25 years as a federal prosecutor, I called a lot of witnesses to testify at a lot of trials. Mostly, the witnesses were FBI agents, or DEA agents, or ICE agents. While preparing for trial there were two things I told my agents. First, always tell the truth. And second, never refer to the defendant by his first name.
My culinary pet peeve is the kernels of microwave popcorn that rest at the bottom of the bag and refuse to pop. My pet peeve about journalists is their decision to refer to corrupt political figures by their first names. Rachel Maddow does it. Bryan Williams does it. Anderson Cooper does it. And my favorite prime time newscaster, Chris Hayes, does it. It’s not just the newscasters, the whole gaggle of talking heads who make the rounds to comment on the news do it too. David Cay Johnston, a well-respected journalist and expert on Donald Trump’s financial dealings, can’t help himself, incessantly referring to Trump during one interview after another as “Donald” or the endearing “The Donald.”
I recently wrote to a Washington Post Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and complimented her on her top-notch writing but suggested that she may want to stop referring to the people she was writing about, for their participation in sleazy political activities, by their first names. The journalist quickly wrote me back, acknowledged that the point was a good one, and vowed to keep that in mind during her future TV appearances. The next time I saw her interviewed on TV, she was back to referring to the subjects of her investigative reporting as “Donald,” “Jared,” and “Ivanka.”
Referring to someone by first name implies a casual and personal familiarity with the person. It humanizes the person, subtly softening the sharp edges of their misdeeds. We refer to our friends and people we like by their first names. I always told my agents that it’s easier for a jury to convict someone they have come to think of as “the defendant” than it is to convict someone they know as “Bobby.”
Referring to subjects of hard news stories by their first names appears to be a new phenomenon. During the months of reporting about Jeffrey Dahmer’s horrific dismemberment of 17 boys and men, I never heard a newscaster open the evening news with “Tonight police executed a search warrant at Jeffrey’s house, finding three additional victims that Jeffrey raped, dismembered, and stuffed into a jar.” There is a reason journalists reporting on Hitler’s atrocities don’t refer to him as “Adolf.”
Thursday night, the president’s attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, had an incoherent meltdown during an interview with Sean Hannity. Giuliani contradicted Trump’s assertion that he knew nothing about the Stormy Daniels hush money payoff, establishing that either the president or his attorney were blatantly lying. Giuliani went on to misstate the law about presidential privilege and to call former FBI Director, James Comey, a “perverted man.” The next thing I saw was Nicole Wallace, who I admire as a journalist, give an interview in which she repeatedly referred to Giuliani as “Rudy.” My immediate reaction was that Wallace was friends with Giuliani off camera and she was pointing out that a buddy of hers made a TV boo boo. I have no reason to believe that is actually the case, but journalists, more than anyone, should know that words matter. If she reported on the Watergate scandal I doubt she would have said that “Richard” refused to turn over White House tapes subpoenaed by the special counsel.
Part of the problem is the way the president communicates. Trump’s stream of consciousness writing, which moves from his mind to his twitter feed without check, makes him seem more like a TV character than the leader of the free world. But, journalists need to be careful not to act in a way that reduces their reporting to little more than an Andy Cohen “Real Politicians of the United States” reunion show. Trump and his administration are not a cast of quirky but lovable characters from a reality show. Journalists need to maintain their professional distance and perspective from the chaos and ever morphing personalities of the people they cover. The line between politics and reality TV has been blurred but it must hold if we are to make it back to a place where its shape and edges are once again distinct.
Donald Trump, and members of his campaign, cooperated with a foreign adversary to corrupt a free presidential election. Then, as president, Trump obstructed the investigation into the original crime. Trump has used his position as president to enrich himself and his family, he has appointed cabinet members who are systematically undermining the agencies they head, and he has stoked the flames of bigotry in a base who used to spew their hatred in private and under their breath but who now hold their heads and arms high with pride that one of their own has ascended to the highest office in the land. Donald Trump has been the most corrosive force to a free press that the press has ever known. There are many words I’d like to use to refer to the president, but “Donald” is not one of them.
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