The Guardian’s Sabrina Siddiqui on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Sabrina Siddiqui.

How long have you been with The Guardian?
Since March of last year.

Where were you before that?
At the Huffington Post from 2012 to early 2015.*

Always political coverage?
Always political coverage. I covered 2012, the presidential race, at the Huffington Post. And after that I covered Congress and also a bit of the White House. I cover the presidential campaign. I cover mostly Hillary Clinton, but also the general election more broadly — now that we have two nominees, in essence. I was on the campaign trail with Marco Rubio for the duration of his campaign, so that was the greater part of the last year. I have a lot of reflections on the media and Donald Trump and how it trickled out into coverage of other campaigns.

You were with Rubio from the time that his campaign started ramping up?
From when he launched through when he dropped out. And I was actually on the road with him pretty much the whole time. I would say I actually was embedded with the Rubio campaign.

So what was it like to watch the rise of Trump from the Rubio side?
I think there was a sense among the campaign, and the press too, to an extent, that it was, at first, a sideshow, that he wouldn’t be a serious contender for the nomination. The very first trip of real campaigning that Rubio did was in June, through Iowa, and it was the first official press conference that he formally gave as a candidate. And the first questions were about Donald Trump, because it was about his comments about immigrants in his announcement speech. And that theme continued from that first press conference all the way through the very last press conference Marco Rubio gave before dropping out of the race in Florida. And it was — I would say, without question — true that I don’t think he ever gave us an avail, a gaggle, where he wasn’t at least asked about Donald Trump once. And that is very striking, because obviously — for any candidate; it’s not about him specifically: Look at Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, they all faced the same questions, more or less. It was usually, “What do you have to say about the latest thing that Donald Trump said?” It became a struggle among the campaigns to break through it and to actually talk about the campaigns that they were running. And there was this moment when Donald Trump had talked about Muslims celebrating on the roof in New Jersey on 9/11, that false statement he made, and someone was asking Marco Rubio about those comments, and he just had a moment where he said, “Guys, I can’t be responding to everything he says. Otherwise I won’t be able to run my campaign. My entire campaign will become about Donald Trump.” And I think it was actually fair of him to say. A lot of the questions came from the networks, understandably, because the networks needed it. The questions were really intended, I think, to get a reaction, whether it was from Rubio or any other candidate who would have pushed back. So I saw that frustration manifest itself and really make it difficult, not just on any particular campaign to set their own narrative and their own agenda, but as a reporter, it was a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario, where now that he’s responded to Donald Trump, now we have to write that, you know what I mean? Now the story has become, “Marco Rubio, or whoever the candidate might be, responds to Donald Trump.” And it just keeps going from there.

So were the questions most often coming from people who were swooping in and just covering single stops? Or from reporters who were covering the campaign regularly? Or both?
Oh, it was both. I would say the traveling press did it too. And the questions were coming from — I’m not saying it was only on them, but from the networks. I mean, it was also coming from beat reporters occasionally. I would say sometimes it was the local press too. It certainly came from a mix of everyone. It’s not as though we never asked about Donald Trump, that the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Guardian that were on the road, that they never asked about Donald Trump — of course we did too — but it was a healthy mix of everyone, really, depending on what he said or what implications there might be, on the party, based on what he might have said.

How did you deal with it yourself? Did you ask many of those questions?
Well, actually, I only asked him one Donald Trump question during his campaign. I remember it specifically. I remember interviewing him in November. I’m lucky, because where I work, there was a mandate to ask more about policy, obviously, writing for a broader audience, an international audience. During the course of most of the campaign, I thought it was important to ask policy questions. At the end of the day, anyone could have been the nominee, right? So I think it’s a disservice, if you’re a reporter, to not cover where these other candidates stand. Because, for all we know, Marco could have been the nominee. And what if no one knew anything about him because no one bothered to really cover it? And that goes for any of them. The danger of being so fixated on one candidate is also that you’re not informing the public, which is what your job is.

Was there a moment where you started to feel like the Trump thing was getting out of control with the press at large, like something had gone wrong, that the coverage had been done in the wrong way?
There was, from the beginning, very real support from the electorate. It was roughly 30 percent at the beginning, and it grew as the field narrowed. People accepted it as inevitable. It certainly can’t be put entirely on the media. But, having said that, when you’re watching the news, I think the moment where that really crystallized was, there was a report, it came out in March, showing that Trump had received roughly $2 billion in so-called earned media. And that was staggering. I do think that it goes back to this idea of the gaggle, and the frustration that you see covering a candidate, and it’s not unique to Marco Rubio — that moment where he said, “Am I ever going to get to talk about my campaign, or are you guys only ever going to ask about Donald Trump?” And that was a moment where it kind of embodied this fixation with Trump … At what point do you decide that every single statement needs this level of coverage? At what point do you need to say, “Okay, this is a fact, that he knows exactly how to dominate the news cycle. It’s a ploy.” At what point do you need to say, “He is effectively calling the shots and managing exactly when he’s covered and how he’s covered”? And essentially — any day that Trump felt like he was losing traction, he would say something, and lo and behold, he dominated the day and the week again.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know

*This post has been corrected to show that Siddiqui worked at the Huffington Post until 2015, not 2016.

Sabrina Siddiqui on the Media