Tweet the Press: How the Media Enable Trump

Like a bad Broadway play, the Anthony Scaramucci show closed after only 11 days. But in his brief time as White House communications director, the Mooch gave quite a performance. He announced himself with a string of profanities, duly reproduced in the quality journals, which was a real pleasure. To find a reference to sucking your own cock in The New York Times, along with a piece about the debate among its editors over publishing such language, was a hilarious, if unintended sendup of journalistic standards, as was the New Yorker’s attempt to justify breaking this story by noting that Scaramucci was a very important person. Sure he was, but did that make his expletives newsworthy? Discuss among yourselves. What can be said with certainty is that it was hella fun. In a week when the president threatened to personally scuttle Obamacare and told police to feel free roughing up suspects, it was the Mooch that everyone talked about. Once again, the Trump administration proved that, when it comes to providing thrills and chills, a major reason why people read papers and watch cable news, he is the media’s best friend.

Yet, if you believe the press, the president has placed the First Amendment “under near-daily assault.” So says Jim Rutenberg, the Times’s media sage. The alarms have been sounded, the war against the forces of tweeted darkness proclaimed. Well, the press’s crisis may be real, but the reason has far more to do with the ready availability of free journalism online than with the president’s attacks. If anything, the publications most critical of Trump have seen a surge in subscriptions. People are glued to their TVs as salivating correspondents chew over every over-the-top remark. This is the underlying explanation for why Trump’s 5 a.m. Twitter blitzes often dominate the news. Only rarely are they truly significant. When he attacks his own attorney general, or goes after his chief of staff, it’s certainly worth reporting. But those tirades wouldn’t have half the appeal they do if they weren’t delivered with zesty ad-hominem. The president may regret letting the Mooch go, because he had this game down. He understood that nothing makes a better front page than a potty mouth in power. That’s what Trump has taught us. The line between news and entertainment is thinner than Jared Kushner’s waist—meaning very thin, indeed.

Consider Trump’s latest celebrity feud: his verbal assault on MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski. This libel occurred around the same time as the president basically threatened to interfere in the investigation of his ties to Russia. Yet, if you followed these two stories as they wended their way through the news cycle, you might not know the difference in their significance. The Brzezinski outburst, and her truly witty response (she went after the size of Trump’s hands) spawned day-two and day-three stories everywhere. Once again, Trump displayed his singular talent for managing his image by attacking potent women. It’s a frisson for every real man who’s ever wanted to slap an uppity bitch and every woman who finds such fantasies sexy. A lot of people fit into those categories, and not only Trump voters. If they like him, they can bask in his refracted macho; if they hate him, they can glow with righteous rage. Either way, it’s the stuff of media dreams, and the president succeeds at shaping the national discourse. His tweets may be grotesque, but he’s used them to obscure the difference between an empty vendetta and a real threat.

And everyone benefits from this confusion. We the people are vastly amused, snickering through our shock-horror.  His victims nearly always benefit from the attention. Ratings rise, commentators become celebs, and newspapers draw a larger readership, which must feel like a sunny break in a monsoon. The turbulence he has generated elevates cable ranters and lifts the fortunes of late-night hosts who answer his prattle with parody. If it weren’t for the president and his moveable feast of scandals, Stephen Colbert wouldn’t be the magus of late-night TV, and Rachel Maddow wouldn’t be a star of the cable-sphere. If Trump’s drivel is treated as if it were serious discourse, that’s partly because the media have something to gain. As in any co-dependency, both parties are helping each other stay alive.

Let’s imagine the unimaginable. Trump tweets something gross and no one cares. His cries of “fake news” don’t make news at all. He issues a 140-character fatwa and that’s the end of the story. Reporters are too busy paying attention to the consequences of Trump’s policies to cover his insults, deftly timed to make the morning news cycle. All of this is academic, of course. As Trump knows from years of playing the bully, slander=coverage. And the ultimate winner is a Barnum whose career has flourished on bunk that inspires headlines. As Trump often says, he makes money for those who publicize his excesses. And now that he is president, Trump and the media are locked in a loop of mutual recrimination, with both sides profiting from the outrage.

As long as Trump was a private citizen he had to compete with a legion of skilled vulgarians. But now his fulminations carry the weight of official statements, and that provides a pretext to report them. We’ve become accustomed to weighing the president’s words for impact. But with most of Trump’s tweets, there is no impact. They mean little aside from their capacity to stimulate a response. His pronouncements blur the distinction between fact and frivolity, yet the media collude with him. Pundits and politicos enable the behavior they abhor. Then they insist that their profession is under siege.

The most serious charge is that Trump encourages violence against reporters. It’s been true ever since he goaded the crowds at his campaign rallies, singling out the press and even mocking a journalist’s disability. Sure, it’s scary when a politician, inspired by the climate Trump has created, body slams a reporter and gets elected anyway, as happened recently in Montana. But when has journalism ever been safe? This may come as a shock to those who stroll the lifestyle beat, but reporting of the sort that threatens the powerful is always risky––even in America.

As a writer and editor at The Village Voice, I lived through many bomb threats from enraged targets of our investigations. I once found it necessary to get an order of protection against a personal stalker, and I contended with all sorts of psychopaths. One of my colleagues was menaced by a political boss who came at him with a large stick. Another was thrown by the police through a plate-glass window while covering a demonstration; his blood-stained press card hung in the editor’s office as a tribute. If I wanted to have a safe job, I would have chosen to be an accountant. But I knew that, whatever the danger, no one could arrest me for my words or shut my paper down. Despite his bluster, the president is powerless against the media, and maybe it’s not the worst thing for those who practice freedom of the press to understand just how angry they make the people they criticize. Telling the truth is hazardous. Deal with it.

As for the partnership between Trump and the media, I suppose the ultimate responsibility lies with the audience. I confess to being hooked. During the campaign, I watched every Republican debate, because I knew that Trump would break all the rules. The great exchange involving the size of his hands was irresistible. And the black comedy is only zanier now that he can rank on Angela Merkel or shove the leader of Montenegro out of his way. I go through withdrawal every Sunday because there’s nothing to astonish me except a recap on Meet the Press. I want fresh meat, and come Monday I will almost certainly get it as the Godzilla in the Oval Office tramples on the world.

So I’m the ultimate guilty party here. But that doesn’t mean the media are obligated to meet my need for constant thrills. No one has to cover presidential utterances that have nothing to do with political reality. Nothing prevents a network from noting his latest blather as a short item after the weather report. Competition is what drives the compulsion to make a big story out of a bit of bullshit. Every editor or producer worries about losing viewers or readers to a more vivid version of what doesn’t really matter. That’s why Trump’s words have the power they do. He is the Great Content Provider, and there may be no way to resist the allure of his infotainment. But at least the press can discern the difference between a wet fart from the president and the news. Not to be melodramatic, but if we’ve lost the ability to distinguish between the two, Trump has won.