Some Thoughts On…The News Media and Trump

Credit: Tom Brenner/The New York Times

“I wish I knew how to quit you…” Remember that line from the movie Brokeback Mountain? That, in a nutshell, is the relationship between the President of the United States and the news media — and vice versa. The dysfunctional relationship between the news press and The White House has never been an easy one. Every president has complained about unfair treatment by the press, but our current president goes further by using social media to constantly complain about the media — as his own media channel. This creates a feedback loop wherein all the news media wants to talk about is Trump and what he’s tweeting. Trump, because he knows which emotional buttons to push to get attention, is almost exclusively focused on what people are saying about him. And The Media (writ large) is almost exclusively focused on him because it’s great for their ratings. It’s been a long-standing understanding that where there’s conflict, there will be eyeballs wanting to see a fight. Why is professional wrestling so popular? Because people want to see the spectacle. They want to root for the good guy and hate the bad guy. They want to see good and evil battle it out in an arena where their visceral feelings about love and hate, good and evil, and right and wrong go at it in a fake fight.

Donald Trump may not be the brightest president ever elected to the highest public office, but he sure knows professional wrestling and how that relates to politics.

There have been many articles written about how GOP presidential candidates got metal pipe to the kneecap in the primaries — and Hillary Clinton got the same in the general election  — because they were used to the old rules of political campaigning and debate. What Trump brought to the contests was the culture of professional wrestling. And for disgruntled groups on the right, and less-than-unified-left, Trump’s brand of WWE political populism struck a chord and got him a slim margin of victory to win the election.

What about now? Well, the show continues, but after a New York Times piece on the daily habits of the president, it’s clear that it’s not entirely a show for Trump. Rather, media attention (and manipulation) is what gets him out of bed in the morning — and keeps him up late at night. He must know how much people are talking about him. He can’t let things go and learn to govern. Instead, he has to keep fighting the battles from last year’s election. An election where the Russian Federation actively engaged in propaganda campaigns via Facebook and Twitter to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. An FBI investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, money laundering, and obstruction of justice is ongoing — and Trump and his surrogates are starting their own media campaign to sow doubt into the integrity of the investigation by implying that it’s biased, corrupt, and can’t be trusted to give the American people a fair reporting of the facts.  But key in this New York Times piece is this ‘graph:

For other presidents, every day is a test of how to lead a country, not just a faction, balancing competing interests. For Mr. Trump, every day is an hour-by-hour battle for self-preservation. He still relitigates last year’s election, convinced that the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, into Russia’s interference is a plot to delegitimize him. Color-coded maps highlighting the counties he won were hung on the White House walls.

Counties won by Clinton (Blue) and Trump (Red) in the 2016 election. Map credit: Dave Leip

The desire to hog the media spotlight — and then calling out the media for being unfair, “fake,” and biased — is a technique Trump uses over and over. It is really surprising how little he changes his manipulation techniques — and how the media keeps reporting on his tweets or public statements like they’ve never seen anything like this before.

Here’s the problem:  we’ve watched this dance for over two years — and if you count Trump’s birther campaign against President Obama, you can add five more years to it. For media newsrooms to feign surprise that Donald Trump is doing something new, unprecedented, and radically different is disingenuous to outright B.S.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people on TV or radio — stunned by what comes out of Trump’s mouth — complain that they have no idea how to counter such behavior. This has to stop — but it won’t. That’s because media outlets need Trump’s crazy behavior to keep people watching the show. Media newsrooms know what he’s doing because they do it, too. Horse race politics, WWE politics, crisis politics, it’s all of a kind, and it’s taking a toll on us.

Now, I work in the media (and in news) and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard co-workers say that all of “this” (and by “this” is the day-to-day political shit storm) is emotionally draining. And it’s not just people who work in the news business. A poll by the American Psychological Association in February 2017 showed that “More than half of Americans (57 percent) say the current political climate is a very or somewhat significant source of stress.” When you add TV viewing with Internet browsing and social media news feeds, there’s no break from that daily dumpster fire of information coming from Trump and the news media.

Other candidates are using Trump’s techniques on the campaign trail, with mixed results. In the special elections last month, we saw the race for the Governor of Virginia as a contest between a rather run-of-the-mill Democratic candidate (Ralph Northam) , and a George W. Bush-era Republican lobbyist turned politician (Ed Gillespie) find out which candidate could appeal to the electorate in the era of Trump. The Democratic candidate won — and won by a large margin (53-45 percent). But in the contest to fill Jeff Sessions senate seat in Alabama, Doug Jones is running a campaign as a pro-choice, pro-healthcare, pro-climate-change-is-real candidate in a state that’s deeply conservative. Roy Moore is running a campaign that’s based on being anti-abortion, pro-flat tax, fighting illegal immigration, being anti-gay, and for massive military spending. Now, Moore’s chances of winning the seat looked like a cake walk — until a Washington Post article revealed that Moore allegedly sexually assaulted teenaged girls when he was in his 30s. Now we really have a Trumpian candidate who will test the moral mettle of Alabamans in the special election. Trump’s bragging about sexual assault on the Access Hollywood recording was waved away as “locker room talk.” Moore’s supporters are going one step further. They say the women who have come forward are liars. Also, the latest twist is that Moore says he doesn’t know any of them. Most people in Alabama do not like Moore, but many also say they don’t like the “Democrat” party either. Doug Jones may be a guy who is personally liked by his fellow residents, but because there’s a D after his name, this contest is now about Team R or Team D. Or more to the point, this is about Team Trump or Team D.

We’ll see the outcome on December 12th.

As you can tell by now, the media have framed Alabama senate election as a referendum on Trump — and, of course, Trump kind of loves this because it’s not really about Alabama, but him. And the media loves that they can frame the election about Trump because it gets people riled up about another horse race — and that equals another payday for news outlets. The cynic in me says both camps (i.e., politicians and their surrogates and news anchors and opinion shapers) have figured out their roles in this four-year (possibly eight) reality TV series. Money is being made, careers in the media and politics are being shaped, and the public anxiously gazes at the spectacle that pits “us” against “them” in an arena where the real losers are, sadly, us.


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