“I'm going to walk away with it and win outright. I'm going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I'm going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.” - Donald Trump
Donald Trump's blend of bombast, amorality and media savvy has carried him to the Republican nomination. He's proven that an ability to dominate coverage and dictate the narrative is sufficient in today's political climate. None of this is surprising: Trump's a TV man with a gift for self-promotion. His entire career has been preparation for this moment, this campaign. He saw our broken, perverted process with clear eyes and he's exploited it with aplomb.
You have to give him credit for that.
While the Republican Party is ultimately responsible for Trump (they welcomed him into their big tent, after all), the media is equally culpable for the calamity that is his candidacy. Every American is entitled to be as undiscerning and uncritical as they like. There's nothing in the social contract that demands voters educate themselves. A democracy, for the most part, can tolerate its share of credulous citizens. But the media has a special obligation in a free society. It's the only profession protected by the U.S. Constitution for a reason: it's a check on power and a gadfly for crooked politicians and abusers of power.
The media has failed spectacularly this election. “It [Trump's campaign] may not be good for America,” said Les Moonves, the CEO and executive chairman of CBS, “but it's damn good for CBS..Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” This is the plundering reaction Trump expected. “They will never take the lights off of me,” he famously said to Republican officials two years before announcing his candidacy.
Importantly, Trump also understood how to navigate the process without engaging issues that matter. To call his campaign substance-free is too generous. It's been a cavalcade of insults and ethno-nationalist dog-whistling, punctuated by populist platitudes. If we had a functional media, Trump would be challenged by journalists and anchors. Instead, they're too busy monitoring the ratings to notice he's using them to prop up his campaign.
Part of the problem, as Columbia journalism professor Todd Gitlin notes in The Washington Post, is that Trump has “cracked the campaign reporters' code.” Gitlin writes:
“Trump regularly runs circles around interviewers because they pare their follow-up questions down to a minimum, or none at all. After 30-plus years in the media spotlight, he knows how to wait out an interviewer, offering noncommittal soundbites and incoherent rejoinders until he hears the phrase, 'let's move on.' He takes advantage of the slipshod, shallow techniques journalism has made routine, particularly on TV – techniques that, in the past, were sufficient to trup up less-media-savvy candidates – but that Trump knows how to sidestep.”
Examples of this abound. Gitlin cites interview after interview in which Trump rope-a-dopes reporters when they ask questions he can't answer or when they suggest, however passively, that he's wrong or lied about the record. “Trump is a master of darting from slogan to slogan,” Gitlin writes. “That's why interviewers must do their homework and be prepared to go at least 2-3 questions deep on any issue.” Great idea, but it's difficult to dive deep when interviewers are forced to shoehorn serious questions in limited time between competing toothpaste commercials.
Trump gets away with this because of the mutually beneficial relationship he has with the press. He knows people like Moonves are interested in selling penis pill ads, not informing the electorate. Voters, for their part, are happy to project whatever they want onto the empty vessel that is Trump. Meanwhile, the truth is an afterthought and the whole sordid circus continues unimpeded.
Gitlin urges journalists “to honor the good name of their profession and take off the kid gloves.” Sound advice, but I'm not holding my breath.