Defending (Gasp!) the Media in the Rise of Trump

Michelle Wolf at the WHCA dinner

When I checked my social media feeds on Sunday morning, I thought for sure all of the coverage of Michelle Wolf’s roastalogue would focus on her upbraiding of the media for secretly being happy Trump was elected:

She’s not wrong, but it struck me that there was no joke in there. At least her ribbing of Sanders’ lying, ashy eyes was clearly part of her comic routine. This accusation was just that, an accusation; part of a narrative that provides us an easy place to point a finger for the ascension of the Grate Leader, Make-Me-Ill, aka Donald J. Trump.

I’m about to shock you, so be prepared. I’m going to defend the media for its role in the creation of the monster.

Let me acknowledge the inescapable truth that the press was manipulated by this gilded con man into giving him hundreds of millions worth of coverage. With his outrageous drivel, he created “news” that spawned reactions that became actual news —the original fake-real news loop. The coverage fed attendance at rallies that were big and ugly and sometimes violent — and had the media ignored that, they would have been excoriated for doing so. And then people started voting for him and the degree of coverage became more legitimate, until he became the presumptive nominee, then the real one, then, unimaginably, the nightmare in the White House we endure daily. For this result, the media is blamed more that Hillary Clinton herself.

So how did we get from there to here? I’m going to use MSNBC as the primary example of over-coverage of Trump, because, as the most progressively-oriented network, it has raised some of the most ire from liberals, i.e. they should have known better. The two Chris’s, (Matthews and Hayes), Rachel, Lawrence, Reid, etc. in fact, did know better. I’ve never heard a positive word from their mouths about candidate or President Trump. But they were never deciding how much coverage he got on their shows.

Like it or not, the vast majority of the media is a profit-making business like any other. They charge advertisers for commercials, and the higher their ratings, the more they can charge. MacNeil-Lehrer or Amy Goodman offered us far more measured coverage of Trump because they are non-profit, non-ratings-driven. Their producers and anchors are able to make reasoned decisions about what to cover.

Phil Griffin over at MSNBC has no such luxury. He was hired to get ratings up, and that’s what he’s doing. There have been some lamentable casualties on the way — Melissa-Harris Perry being the most prominent. But the real villain is not Mr. Griffin, or his NBC/Universal overlords, but the fact that we are a capitalist society in which the profit motive exists in industries where it shouldn’t. Healthcare is the most glaring example, but news-gathering is a close second. The Edward R. Murrow model of objective, sober reporting that reigned for many years in TV news is gone and not coming back. But in many ways, the Cronkite culture was itself an aberration. Before TV ratings, we had newspaper circulation; before Rupert Murdoch, William Randolph Hearst. The “corporate media” is nothing new in American history. And as much as we laud the days of non-hysterical Huntley-Brinkley style reporting, this very same pre-cable press coverage did nothing to prevent the phenomenon of George Wallace, whose parallels to Trump were chillingly detailed by Rachel Maddow in 2016.

So put yourself in the shoes of any one of the decision-makers who told Chuck Todd or Wolf Blitzer to give the entire A-block over to Donald Trump chewing the scenery. Of course you wanted the ratings. You knew if your network’s ratings went down with any consistency, you would be bound to lose your job. What exactly would you have done in their position?

Personally, I zipped through much of Donald Trump with the DVR, but even so, I began to perceive some of the saturation coverage differently over time. I noticed almost all of the much-vilified punditocracy had virtually the same reaction as most of us did to Trump — this guy can’t possibly go anywhere because he just called Mexicans rapists, insulted John McCain’s war record, blamed Megyn Kelly’s questions on menstruation, etc. What news producer can be blamed for thinking the best way to defeat Donald Trump was to let the cameras keep rolling? Every week, we all seemed to think, “Oh well, he’s done it now. He’s insulted one constituency too many. He’s mocked a person with disabilities.’” What other politician could have ever survived that? (Rick Perry couldn’t even survive forgetting one cabinet agency four years ago.)

I kept hoping for reporters to refuse to cover Trump when he threatened their physical safety at rallies — which would have been completely justified and asphyxiated his candidacy. But who would have risked allowing Fox to be the only outlet reporting on him? Of course, everyone of them wanted to be holding the mic when the Gaffer-in-Chief finally uttered the historic remark that would forever be looked back upon as when ‘The Donald’ went too far. We thought we finally reached that point with the Access Hollywood tape. We were wrong.

That there was never a “too far” was so hard to imagine because it required understanding that his supporters were attracted to precisely the same incoherent obnoxiousness that repelled the rest of us. It required accepting how much more racist and xenophobic Americans are than even the most jaded among us thought. It required understanding a phenomenon that frankly makes no sense to the rational mind, that may not even make much sense to historians looking back in 50 years.

Does this mean I think the media should be let off the hook in its dance with the devil? Hell, no. But blaming them a some kind of monolithic entity is as simplistic as blaming Kim Kardashian for the rise of shallow celebrity culture. She, like Trump, is not the cause of the sickness, but a symptom of it.

And if we’re going to be fair about affixing blame, we need to include ourselves.

Nobody forced us to watch.

Author, "Ink from the Pen," about my 9 months using creativity as the ultimate survival tool behind bars.

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