Trump's Inescapable Carnival Act: Live By It, Die By It?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Has Donald Trump figured out how to beat the press?  There is understandable concern that his Twitter addiction has superseded the normal channels of political communication, and that he has in general put himself outside the rules of the old game.  If so, we have an even more serious problem than we thought.

It now appears, however, that there might be a way out, with Trump's excesses creating self-inflicted weaknesses that feed directly into the media's traditional strengths.  Understanding how that might work, however, first requires reviewing the many sources of weakness that we have seen in our free press as our democracy has become threatened by a would-be autocrat.

I recently argued that the women and men of the traditional media need to find the courage to fight Trump's assault on logic and reason.  I suggested, however, that they might not be up to the task, because there is no particular reason to think that they are a particularly brave lot.

Most reporters and pundits seem to prefer the comfort of traditional two-sides-to-every-story narratives, with both parties deemed equally dishonest and everyone hoping for a sensible centrist to come along and make it all right.  Even more importantly, reporters and editors generally do not want to make an enemy of the most powerful man on earth.  (Who does?  No sensible person wants to be attacked by a madman.)

When too many news operations feel constrained by journalistic convention to pursue the hard truths, because doing so might not be "balanced," the job falls to the editorialists and op-ed writers to take a decidedly non-neutral approach to the news.  The biggest news outlets have the biggest megaphones, and the path of politics can be shaped for good or ill by emerging agreements among commentators.  (For an example of how this works "for ill," recall the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.)

Overlaid on top of these idealized notions of what media sources should do, moreover, is the economic model of American journalism.  News coverage decisions are ultimately too often driven by what viewers will want to watch, not what is important.  This is hardly a new phenomenon: "If it bleeds, it leads," is one of the oldest cynical summations of how news coverage is shaped by the chase for ratings.

Hamilton Nolan at Deadspin adds to the mix what he calls the "regulatory capture" of the press, in which the reporters and editors of news organizations become obsessed with "access" to powerful news sources, and this desire not to be shut out by the people being covered causes the content of stories to morph into friendly fluff.

These corrupting influences were in place well before the election of 2016, and the speed with which the media landscape had changed left a great deal of uncertainty about how the press would adapt (or mutate) in the future, no matter who became president.

Moreover, the reality-checking role played by the opinion pages had also become deeply compromised, most famously at The New York Times.  There are veritable cottage industries devoted to criticizing the slate of regular op-ed contributors to The Times, precisely because it is the most influential single page of political opinion coverage in the world.

Some of those cottages, of course, are filled with trolls who attack Paul Krugman for being a liberal, and similarly shrill critiques.  Leaving aside the purely ideological hackery, however, the meaningful critiques of Times op-ed writers are based on the rather obvious fact that almost none of them have any idea what they are talking about (Krugman obviously excepted).

For a long time, complaints about mainstream pundits (for example, a column that I wrote in 2014) were essentially attempts to say that the general slide in the condition of the U.S. political system was at least coincident with our toleration of low-quality punditry.  It was infuriating, but it was also in some sense more of a cultural critique than a political one: "Why must I read this tripe every day?"

Worse, that media organizations like The Times were willing to continue employing the same tired slate of non-entities could not even be justified by a cynical economic narrative.  Whereas one could reluctantly understand the profit-driven nature of news decisions to cover popular pap, the longevity of bad op-ed writers seemed to be driven by little more than excessive chumminess among newsroom pals.

By the time 2016 rolled along, therefore, the op-ed pages were at best unreliable sources of truth-telling.  Newspapers like The Times insisted on employing token ideologues, no matter their abilities, and the general quality continued to decline.

All of which means that the media were absolutely not ready for Trump -- indeed, in some ways they could not have done a better job of preparing themselves to be played by Trump.  On both the news and editorial sides, American media have been so badly degraded that they could not help themselves when Trump came along.  The heads of CBS and CNN might have been the most open in admitting that they loved what Trump did for their bottom lines, but everyone was in for the ride.

In another insightful column, Deadspin's Nolan writes that "The New York Times Is Not Built For This," by which he means that the op-ed writers for The Times are simply not up to the task of dealing with the new reality of Trump.  (He does not discuss the news side in that column, focusing his gaze only on the opinion makers.)

Nolan begins with an appropriately sneering critique of the lightest of the lightweights on The Times's roster, the liberal-ish Frank Bruni.  Interestingly, Bruni has become an example of something that I noted in a different context recently, which is that we need to be honest with ourselves that not everything is worth reading.  My imaginary quote above -- "Why must I read this tripe every day?" -- has a very simple answer: I don't.

For example, after I wrote the last entry of my recent three-part series about academic freedom and free speech on campus, I saw the headline for Bruni's next column, "The Dangerous Safety of College," with the sub-headline, "The ugly protest at Middlebury is a wake-up call. We’re failing today’s students."

I am not providing a link to that column, because I did not read it.  Why should I?  Track records have to mean something, and Bruni's is so bad that it is nearly impossible to imagine that he had anything useful to add.  But I cannot know for sure unless I read it, right?  Yes, but that is true of everything that I did not read, and the decision by The Times to continue to publish this man's work is no reason that it should rise to the top of anyone's must-read list.

But Bruni is hardly alone. Nicholas Kristof is generally better, but he recently defended Trump voters by saying that they had fallen for "a silver-tongued provocateur."   Huh?  Kristof is referring to the famously incomprehensible president who has said, for example, that he could not delay his Muslim ban "because then people are going to pour in before the toughness goes on."  Silver tongued?  Does Kristof even think before he writes this stuff?

There is a seemingly bottomless pit of examples of such unserious writing among the big-name pundits, and it is sometimes fun to make sport of it.  But the bigger point is that, at the time when we most need incisive commentary, the world of opinion-making continues to be led by a roster of people who mostly have nothing to say.

Which brings us back to the possible good news.  Trump's carnival act enthralled the news reporters to the point that they would cover anything he did.  Now that he is president, the worry is that he and his people have ratcheted up Reagan's strategy of creating so much outrageous news that nothing ever gets covered in depth, which allows a president to succeed so long as he simply refuses ever to admit being wrong and then waits for the news cycle to turn to the next bit of insanity.

This strategy is different from the ways in which other Republicans have beaten the press.  House Speaker Paul Ryan has gotten a free pass as a policy wonk, all evidence to the contrary.  Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell simply repeats a robotic response to any issue -- for example, rejecting Obama's pick for the Supreme Court because "the people should decide" -- and refuses to answer any questions that would expose his illogic.

Ryan, in other words, makes reporters think that they are playing the same reasonable game that they have always wanted to play, so they do not feel the need to pursue him too aggressively.  McConnell, by contrast, does not even try to fool anyone into thinking that he is anything but a political operator, but he wins by not making news.

News reporters, after all, are looking for news, and there was no news for all of the months in which Merrick Garland was being stonewalled for no defensible reason.  Meanwhile, the occasional cries of outrage from the editorial pages could not make a dent, because no editorial page is going to run the same editorial every day in a losing effort to shame McConnell.

We do not know if Trump's approach to the press has been a deliberate strategy or instead an unhappy coincidence for the country, where his personal excesses happen to put the press at a disadvantage.  We do know, however, that what seems like a huge story one minute becomes old news the next, somehow allowing Trump to stay one step ahead of the posse.

News organizations have, to their credit, taken to calling Trump out for his lies.  Even so, nothing much has changed.  What seems to be happening now, however, is that Trump has blundered into making his own shortcomings an ongoing story that is constantly new enough to count as news.

For example, it is now apparently newsworthy that Trump's unending stream of insanity is wearing down his staff.  This is significant not so much because of the content of the story itself but because it shows how Trump's provocations are starting to settle into patterns that can be reported critically and on a continuing basis.  Another lie, another foreign power alienated, another refusal to back down, another example of relying on a conspiracy theorist, another day in which we wonder when his spokespeople might crack.

And at some point, when this unholy body of work becomes too much (most likely involving the Russia connection, but maybe it will be something else), the people defending Trump (especially, but not necessarily exclusively, those who are not in his employ) might finally say enough is enough.  They are unlikely to remember that the president fired his acting attorney general for refusing to defend an unconstitutional travel ban, but they will have absorbed the larger story to which more and more indefensible items are added every day.

In short, whereas Reagan might have found the sweet spot in which he and his people created just enough noise to keep everyone off balance, Trump -- with characteristic excess -- is forcing the press to figure out how to cover a meta-story by covering pieces of it in each news cycle.

Importantly, this theory does not require the press to be particularly courageous.  They can just do their jobs and cover what there is to cover, looking for patterns and recurring stories to ground their reporting each day.

Trump used the press's pack mentality and other weaknesses to win the presidency.  He might finally have accidentally empowered the press in a way that will make him lose, bigly.