The Media’s Self-Lacerating Role in Trump’s Climb

Whatever interlude will follow yesterday’s election of Donald J. Trump, the undead will rise from their political graves and lurch toward 2020 and the news cycle will resume.

Finally, the gods might allow us respite from dispiriting news of presidential campaigning.

Don’t count on it.

More likely, we’ll embrace the ancient invocation of insanity, “Whom the gods would punish, they first make mad.” 

Whatever interlude will follow yesterday’s election of Donald J. Trump, the undead will rise from their political graves and lurch toward 2020 and the news cycle will resume.

At the same time, news media will begin their collective quadrennial post mortem. With unctuous piety, they’ll solemnly repeat new and historic mea culpas. Then, they’ll resolve anew to ignore sensational distractions and to focus on vital issues. 

Don’t count on that, either. 

After all, at times, Fox News’ Megyn Kelly got more news media attention than the candidates: her menstrual cycle, her spaghetti-strap on-camera little black dress, her blonde helmet that never moves. 

Then there were the debased “debates,” plunging from penis and pussy to “nasty woman.” 

In war, truth is the first casualty. In this presidential year, civility was the first casualty. Truth and truth-telling were collateral damage.

I’ll leave politics to the pundits. My concern begins with the news media’s self-lacerating role in Trump’s climb from loathsome “reality” TV to a toxic political force.

Because his eruptions, however absurd or false, were sure to draw retweeters, readers, viewers, listeners and rivals’ rejoinders, reporters and editors were complicit in Trump’s domination of the 24/7 news cycle.

Trump understood news media and Twitter better than most journalists. Reporters followed his every word. Millions bonded under “Make America Great Again.” No one could ignore him. No one could fire him. He was The Star. He said so.

He got so much free news space and time that he didn’t buy ads until late in the campaign. GOP opponents had no chance. 

Reporters couldn’t turn away. It was like crime and celebrity news; few of us admit enjoying it but woe to any editor silly enough to cut back on either. 

Not to be left behind, Clinton talked about Trump. 

Even when both made news, Clinton spent her time rebutting persistent accusations of deception, conspiracy and criminal behavior. 

Trump fared better. Exaggerations, outright lies and flat-earth assertions rarely outlived one news cycle. Nothing stuck until that old video clip about the joys of assaulting women went viral.  

More than bias fueled their different treatments. It was media economics. He couldn’t fail to draw attention. News execs equated audience numbers with otherwise elusive ad revenues.

Both candidates loathe the news media. Clinton avoided reporters. Trump never missed a chance to abuse, insult and damn the news media.

By the time you voted, mainstream news media were in Trump’s cesspit with unattractive women, Mexicans, Muslims and the Clintons. Narcissistic and thin-skinned, Trump treated reporters as the enemy, in league with Satanic forces guided by the Clintons and mysterious “international bankers” (an old calumny for “The Jews!”).

The news media’s loss of authority and ability to lead public discussion isn’t new and it’s the result of more than the rise of the internet.

Republicans spent decades undermining news media credibility. You could track it by the rise of partisan Fox News on cable, reactionary AM talk shows and alt-right internet sites promoting various bigotries. 

Trump knew this. He’s no newcomer to public life. He masterfully manipulated codependent news media. Then he predictably discarded national reporters and their editors as useful idiots once he secured the GOP nomination. 

As evidence of his contempt, he banned some reporters from his events. He also urged supporters to intimidate journalists who feared assaults at Cincinnati and other Trump rallies.

For a recent example, watch the video of a Trump supporter menacing corralled journalists at a recent Trump rally. His rant draws on undisguised white nationalist, antisemitic themes in the Trump campaign. When others chanted “USA, USA,” that supporter screamed “Jew S.A., Jew S.A.”

Trump’s charge of elections being “rigged” was a classic — an extreme, unsupportable claim — and news media ate it up. It didn’t matter that he included them among the damned forces rigging the election.

Conventional wisdom also undermined national campaign coverage. In place of understanding Trump supporters, mainstream news media embraced stereotypes as a shorthand for reality. It wasn’t that long ago that national reporters made the same mistakes about Tea Party members. The only difference was the stereotype of Trump’s people was downmarket Tea Party.

Eventually, reporters found suffering Americans who believed they’d been sent to the back of the bus after owning and driving it. 

Some of these unemployed and underemployed Americans were bigots, validated, encouraged and freed by Trump to give voice to their hates.

More, however, were just soft targets for Trump’s assurance that only he — and not our political system — can restore their diminished expectations and aspirations.

That so many American discarded their crap detectors illustrates their distrust of our broader political system and mainstream news media. By contrast, the Tea Party is just that, a tea party.

Reinforcing Trump supporters’ alienation is the growing tendency for Americans to have their own facts, provided by partisan social media, AM radio and internet sites. Rich in conspiracies and misinformation, these “facts” become unassailable. 

Journalists still trying to provide contrary but verifiable information have gone from being ignored to mistrusted and hated. 

When news media acceded to conservative demands for greater coverage of their voices, it didn’t help. If Trump voters were aware of this grudging shift to the right, they still didn’t trust anything in those mainstream sources. More likely, his supporters weren’t even aware of the news media concessions to more mainstream Republicans. 

Not long ago, national news media were unsure whether Trump supporters’ enthusiasm was a white malaise, blue collar angst and/or evangelical Christian hypocrisy over abortion, divorce and “family values.”   

No surprise. Except when they leave Manhattan or Washington and parachute into some “typical” small town for a story to illustrate some political issue, national reporters rarely know the people to whom they purport to speak. 

Coverage of Trump’s sharp business practices and boorish if not criminal treatment of women didn’t inform his voters. Rather, it reinforced their belief that “the media” were part of a Vast Leftwing Conspiracy to again deny White Christian Americans “their” president. They had enough of that during the Obama years.

Over the past year, Trump sucked followers into his fact-free universe. Trapped there, they damned news stories that contradicted their Truths. 

Moreover, that news media journalism was taken as evidence of a conspiracy to block his election, rig ballots and demean them as ignorant Americans clinging to their opioids, guns, Bibles and divorce decrees. 

Trump, his supporters and their anger aren’t going away and it’s time to accept that traditional news media are in no position to help bridge our bitter cultural/partisan abyss.

“Spitting into the wind” barely describes it.

At the same time, mainstream news media haven’t a clue how to recreate the trust and authority they once enjoyed.

My guess? They never will. That’s as dead as civility. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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