Of all the personalities in a star-struck nation’s public life — more than any movie actor, athlete, corporate CEO, or fellow politician — President Donald Trump squeezes the largest and most self-serving measure of juice from the U.S. news media.
Though the president and his acolytes are quick to deride unfavorable news stories as “fake news,” the administration owes its existence to the way mainstream and social media platforms can accommodate an avalanche of stories. Whether negative or fawning, any media attention gives lift to Trump’s fact-free pronouncements and racist demagoguery. Through the sheer audacity of his mendacious personality, amplified a million-fold by his occupancy of the most powerful office on the globe, Trump is a one-man train-wreck, constantly barreling head-long into every decent norm of American life.
And, with each jarring twist and turn, the nation’s media dutifully notes and conveys his evermore crazy mutterings, seemingly transfixed, unable or unwilling to look away from the oncoming calamity. While those in the mainstream media like to portray themselves as impartial observer, which at times forces them to take an antagonistic pose of the White House’s shenanigans, more often than not reporters and editors are more like trumpets being played by a blow-hard president.
Recent reporting on the ongoing debate over a border wall, which has stalemated into a long-term shutdown of the federal government, provides a case in point. An “exclusive” NBC News report, published on Thursday morning, breathlessly observed that “[a]s President Trump advocates for a steel slat border wall design, Department of Homeland Security testing of the prototype proves that it could be cut through with a saw. A photo exclusively obtained by NBC News shows the results of the test.”
As this story makes the media rounds, it’s being widely hailed as an important journalistic coup that seemingly points out Trump’s folly in calling for a specific wall design that his own administration’s agency has determined to be weak, easy to breach and, therefore, ineffective. (To be fair, those who drill down deep enough into NBC News’ story will read an account from a government official, who notes that the proposed wall was never expected to be impenetrable, merely a sturdy enough restraint that might allow the relevant authorities to have enough time to react and prevent illegal entry across the border.)
Still, news reporters and Washington’s chattering classes have treated this story as something of a “scoop” — one which treats the president’s shift from a concrete barrier to steel slats as yet one more example of the administration’s flip-flopping ineptitude.
The wall is symbolic. It exists solely for the purpose of allowing the president to continually promulgate a steady stream of racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant fear mongering.
But such an interpretation misses its mark. Far from being a humiliation for the president, the existence of this story is actually a substantial political marketing victory for the Trump administration. That’s because, any discussion about the wall’s building materials, its height, or one version’s relative imperviousness over another model moves the political conversation to a dangerously divergent topic.
When it comes to Trump’s often deceitful arguments that there is an emergent need for a wall on the southern border, the heart of the matter has nothing to do with construction or a debate on the merits of concrete or steel. The wall is symbolic. It exists solely for the purpose of allowing the president to continually promulgate a steady stream of racist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant fear mongering.
And, there’s nothing in this NBC News story about that topic — it’s just about steel, saws, and slats.
I sincerely believe that media must stop broadcasting Trump’s yelling sessions when he leaves the White to travel. He is essentially being allowed to lie, virtually uninterupted, and then they have to figure out how many of those lies to fact check. BUT, the lies are already OUT!
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) January 10, 2019
Another recent example took place earlier this week as the country’s major network news operations agreed to grant Trump a prime-time audience in defense of these border wall demands. Despite the fact that the same networks declined in 2014 to air President Barack Obama’s Oval Office speech on immigration, arguing it was “overtly political,” they readily capitulated to Trump’s demand.
Clearly, the networks are free to pick and choose its programming, absent any objective or measurable standard other than their own self-defined efforts to attract eyeballs. In their defense, most news outlets went to great lengths to fact-check the lies Trump uttered during his speech. But once again, the correction only came after Trump abused the platform to spread his false narrative. Trying to fact check a shameless, serial liar is a never-ending job, one that no single reporter or news outlet is eternally equipped to do.
Meanwhile, Trump continually benefits from this media failure, time after time getting erstwhile reputable news outlets to advance his work. True, Trump has few original ideas and almost no political policy instincts. But that seems to be only a passing note in the daily string of stories about the legion of half-baked ideas which emanate from his administration.
As someone who spent decades in mainstream newsrooms, I have an idea why this happens. Trump is entertaining and — love him or hate him — he attracts attention. He’s a human cipher, a figure devoid of logic or reason, and as such is irresistible to the media. Reporters and editors abhor the vacuum Trump produces by making all the news about himself and nothing more. So when media types read one after another of his meaningless Tweets or crazed rally rants, they endeavor to find some kind of meaning in the nihilism — to make some sense out of all the nonsense.
And so while Trump may initially inspire reporters to publish stories that, at first blush, essentially say: “A concrete wall along the U.S./Mexico border is a foolish notion,” eventually, those same reporters are going to feel that itch to inform and illuminate. And so, that first round of properly skeptical accounts will soon be followed up by others which wonder: “Well, what if he really did make the wall out of steel, instead of concrete?” At this point, the media are doing all the work that Trump didn’t do in the first place.
But more importantly, once the media narrative morphs to this stage, it has the effect of normalizing the conversation about the border wall. Now, the debate is about design and construction elements — instead of the demagoguery, the anti-immigrant paranoia, or the immoral and dehumanizing effect of the wall on our collective souls.
And, once more, Trump succeeds in shredding our nation just a little bit more — with the news media enabling him to pull it off.