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How The President's Twitter Can Be A Tool To Understand The Trump Administration


All this week NPR has been presenting stories about the nature of free speech in the digital age. Today we turn our attention to President Trump. If you only had one way to learn about the Trump presidency, which would you choose? Would you watch cable news, scan the newspapers, wait for Ken Burns to weigh in with a documentary - setting aside your obvious first choice of listening to NPR. Well, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik argues there is no better way to understand the Trump era right now than to scroll through the president's Twitter feed.


FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: As FDR was to radio in his fireside chats JFK was to television, here talking to the nation about civil rights.


JOHN F KENNEDY: We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

FOLKENFLIK: So, too, is Donald Trump a master of his mass medium of choice. His messages to the public are often less reflective of our better angels, not infrequently nasty, brutish and short - 280 characters or less, to be precise.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Sean Spicer ducking the question as well hours after the president's astounding tweet threatening the FBI director he fired.


RYAN NOBLES: Trump's latest attack on the media...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God, what's going to happen?

NOBLES: ...A video showing the president punching and tackling a person whose head was replaced by the CNN logo.


JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump reacted on Twitter saying, quote, "Kim Jong Un, obviously a madman, will be tested like never before."

FOLKENFLIK: Emily Parker is a journalist and former State Department official. She pushed for greater transparency in diplomacy.

EMILY PARKER: People always said, oh, it would be so great if, you know, we could get more public figures on Twitter and if they could speak directly to the public and speak directly to each other.

FOLKENFLIK: Now Parker says be careful what you wish for.

PARKER: Before social media it was a lot more opaque, right? A lot of these conversations between leaders were happening behind closed doors, and we had no idea what was going on. And now you can have leaders literally fighting in public in front of the entire world.

FOLKENFLIK: A bit more than a year into his presidency, Trump sets policies, settles scores and swaps out personnel more on Twitter than in any other forum. The secretary of state's firing - that was announced on Twitter. The national security adviser - him, too. Trump often takes his own aides by surprise, assailing critics, reporters, foreign countries, political foes, political allies. Don't rely on his tweets for facts or actual policy. Think of them more as a mood ring.


STEPHEN COLBERT: In other Trump staffing news, the president attacked his attorney general on Twitter.

FOLKENFLIK: This from CBS late-night host Stephen Colbert.


COLBERT: Mr. President, don't be passive-aggressive. Just pick up the phone and call Jeff Sessions.

FOLKENFLIK: What do we gain from paying such close attention? Are we distracting ourselves to death, to tweak the phrase of the late Neil Postman? Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway says the media is among those focusing too much on what Trump tweets.


KELLYANNE CONWAY: Look; I know it's a heck of a lot easier to cover 140 characters here or there or what the president may be saying about the media here or there than it is to learn the finer points of how Medicaid is funded in this country and how that would or would not change under the Senate bill.

FOLKENFLIK: And that's certainly true. Yet this President has also demonstrated little interest in the finer points of social policy. And that Conway appearance last summer was on "Fox & Friends," a show which Trump watches closely and from which he takes direct inspiration for speaking points and for his policy priorities. How do we know this? From Trump's Twitter feed.

JAMEEL JAFFER: You know, there's really no way to understand the administration except through the president's Twitter account.

FOLKENFLIK: Jameel Jaffer is the director of the Knight First Amendment Center at Columbia University's law school. He points to what Trump actually chooses to communicate beyond policy announcements.

JAFFER: He also uses it to insult people and to make bigoted remarks. And, you know, I don't think there's any question that he's lowered the tenor of political debate. And the Twitter account is maybe, you know, the largest part of it.

FOLKENFLIK: Take Trump's retweeting of anti-Muslim material posted on accounts operated by British far right groups. Twitter has promised repeatedly to crack down on hate speech. It took down those accounts but not Trump's, saying in January that they won't block any world leaders because people should be able to see and debate their ideas. Jaffer used to be a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, and he says he's glad that Twitter hasn't taken any action against Trump.

JAFFER: What it means to be a First Amendment kind of guy in this particular context is complicated because Twitter has First Amendment rights, too.

FOLKENFLIK: Jaffer and the Knight Center have actually sued Trump. Trump or his aides blocked a bunch of online critics from following him on Twitter. Jaffer's - is trying to convince a federal judge to allow them to see what their president has said on Twitter. Jaffer argues that the back-and-forth nature of Twitter makes it more like a city council meeting than a television broadcast, a forum in which people can talk back to elected officials. That case is still in the courts.

JAFFER: The president is experimenting with a new communications technology. And he's doing it because the technology allows him to reach the people in a more immediate way.

FOLKENFLIK: Lately Trump has been attacking Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, personally owns The Washington Post. Trump's anger at the paper and at Bezos has been palpable even if the president's specific claims about Amazon don't hold up. Former diplomat Emily Parker says maybe don't point the finger only at the president or at his favorite social media platform.

PARKER: People get very frustrated with Twitter and Trump, and they kind of blame Twitter. And they say, OK, Twitter's amplifying his message. But it's not Twitter that is amplifying Trump's message. It's us.

FOLKENFLIK: In which case the fault is not just in our Twitter feed but in ourselves. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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