Jon Stewart is right: How long will the media play Trump's game?

Comics undertake journalism. The news becomes a joke. Trump is making rubes of the media, and it's playing along

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published November 2, 2018 7:00PM (EDT)

Jon Stewart (AP/Phil Mccarten)
Jon Stewart (AP/Phil Mccarten)

A fleeting moment within the teaser for Axios’s interview with Donald Trump, the centerpiece of Sunday's “Axios on HBO,” tells all you need to know about how the president truly feels about his relationship to the media.

Moments after Jim VandeHei admits to Trump that his “enemy of the people” rhetoric scares the hell out of him, the reporter (and co-founder of the media site) tells the president, “You are, like, the most powerful man in the world.”

Reflexively Trump looks off-camera and grins, briefly, his face flush with what appears to be self-satisfaction. There was concentrated smugness in that expression, tinged with a pugilist’s cruelty.

In that scene, VandeHei points out the extreme irresponsibility of any leader of the free world using his position and platform to vilify an entire class of people, and using that rhetoric to stoke the emotions of the people who constitute his base.

Ever the attention-hungry reality show star, Trump softly replies, “They like me more because of it,” claiming that engaging in dangerous hyperbole is the only way he can fight back. That satisfied grin says he knows he’s winning.

“Axios on HBO,” premiering Sunday at 6:30 p.m., is one of many specials the news site will run on the premium cable channel as part of a partnership. HBO has been steadily expanding its news and information footprint. And that in itself indicates how malleable our concept of news has become under Trump’s administration.

Mind you, HBO has long been a ferocious contender in the documentary space, and has been the home of “Real Time with Bill Maher” for 16 seasons, and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” for five.

Joining this mix were its pre-midterm “Pod Save America” specials, live broadcasts of the Crooked Media podcast, which wrapped up on Friday. And four nights of the week it airs "Vice News Tonight," although HBO plans to cut that brand’s weekly news show following the run of its current season, according to an NBC News report.

However, out of all of these titles, it's the comedians, Bill Maher and John Oliver, who earn the most attention. Oliver in particular frequently receives positive acclaim for presenting deeply researched segments every week, diving into such public interest segments as corrupt government and corporate practices and alarming political trends. You know, just like a journalist.

As such, Twitter was over the moon this week at the sight of a veritable current affairs supergroup sitting down for a conversation, when Christiane Amanpour interviewed Dave Chappelle and Oliver’s former boss Jon Stewart at London's Royal Albert Hall for CNN's "Amanpour." The interview is worth enjoying in its fullness for many reasons but, as was true of that Axios clip, certain moments are worth parsing.

Since Trump has been elected, two popular opinions have arisen, both containing some questionable version of the truth. One is that he’s been terrible for journalism. The other is that he’s been a boon for comedy. Reporters and comics take issue with each of these assessments.

But one strange truth is that his tactics have resulted in a further conflation of journalism and entertainment in a way that has defanged the way the press covers him as well as Congress. Over the past week especially, many members of the press had to finally wake up to the fact that what journalists of color have been saying all along — Trump is a white supremacist — is indeed true. But most still have problems saying that, even after Trump crowed about being a nationalist at a rally in Houston. They’re too afraid of losing the crowd, of walking the room.

Near the beginning of her CNN interview, Amanpour poses a version of that thesis to Stewart. Pointing out Trump’s praising of a political candidate who assaulted a reporter — this in the midst of the still-unfolding reporting on the gruesome murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey — Amanpour asks Stewart what he makes of Trump’s behavior.

She refers to Stewart as “sort of the gray beard of journalism, almost. I know you hate that. But when anchors started to be less authoritative than they used to may be, you know, 20 years ago, you were, for better or for worse, considered somebody with authority every night.”

Stewart dismisses this idea out of hand, explaining that in reality, he was the “no confidence” vote.

“We were none of the above,” he said. “So, people would say, you know, ‘Who's the most trusted news anchor?’ And they would list the four network anchors and then they would throw in, you know, my name — none of the above — and everybody's like, ‘none of the above’ and then circle it.”

If that’s true, that means we have many more “none of the above” selections these days. That’s not necessarily a negative: Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and even Jim Jefferies in his own relaxed fashion have used their platforms, and the latitude comedy grants them, to tell hard truths.

This has expanded into the news realm, too. CNN’s Jake Tapper and Don Lemon are journalists who ask hard hitting questions but they’re also, in a very real way, personalities in the vein of Rachel Maddow and her dark matter equivalents Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

Megyn Kelly was part of that right-wing media axis until she made it her goal to be a Real Journalist. NBC thought it could style her thusly in primetime and failed. And when the corporate entity attempted to fall back on Kelly’s personality to carry a morning show, “Megyn Kelly Today,” critics and comedians did not allow NBC or the host to escape the ghosts of her racist past which, as her comments on blackface proved, were never in the past in the first place.

The migration of consumer trustworthiness from the hard journalism sphere into the entertainment realm, and comedic specifically, began long before Stewart revitalized “The Daily Show” in 1999. Fox News Channel made a point of blurring those lines since its earliest days before erasing them altogether in the Obama era.

But for mainstream media, what is coming home to roost now is how stubborn traditional news outlets have been in their refusal to acknowledge that the entertainer-in-chief has changed the game on them entirely. He did so from day one of his term by painting the entire industry as one nebulous cabal of ineffectual antagonists.

Earlier this week Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed this out, recalling former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s early declaration that the press was the opposition party.

“The problem was the media didn’t want to be Trump’s opposition party. The media wanted to cover his presidency,” Klein explained, pointing out the numerous post-inauguration instances in which journalists desperately sought out signs that Trump was finally becoming president. When those never truly arrived, journalists became the definitive enemy instead, seeking to delegitimize him at every turn.

And as his media partners at Fox News Channel picked up that catchy refrain, a concurrent timidity and habit of meeting outrage with outrage resulted. The outrage manifests in obsessive fact checking, which is both necessary and, this deep into the quagmire of lies, pointless. The timidity takes the form of refusing to accurately call the administration's horrific behaviors by their proper definition.

Namely this would be the refusal to call Trump’s reference to a migrant caravan primarily composed of women and children fleeing their violent homelands for the chance at having a better life as “invaders,” or the bigoted, Willie Horton-esque campaign ads attempting to frighten voters with visions of violent criminals illegally crossing the border, what they are. These are unequivocally racist actions.  Not “racially divisive,” racist. And yet.

This is not to say that those who are demonstrating an understanding of that right now, such as Axios, are doing remarkably better. The news site launched in the Trump era with a very Trumpian manifesto:

“Media is broken — and too often a scam.

Stories are too long. Or too boring. Web sites are a maddening mess. Readers and advertisers alike are too often afterthoughts. They get duped by headlines that don't deliver and distracted by pop-up nonsense or unworthy clicks. Many now make money selling fake headlines, fake controversies and even fake news.”

An analysis in The New Republic that published not long after Axios launched that cited several phrases that could be interpreted as alarming within that paragraph. One that should stick out to the consumer, as the article cites, is the sentence that makes readers and advertisers equivalent.

Axios has stated its commitment to brevity, reflecting the trend toward shortened attention spans. Since that was written, it has more or less lived up to that, including links to slightly longer stories on its own site or much longer dives on other outlets. Why waste time pleading with the reader to patiently consider the bite in the larger context of the meal? That’s a sucker’s game.

Which brings us back to that clip, and VandeHei finding a way in with Trump by doing what Fox News excels at doing, and CNN, NBC News, CBS and ABC do not — and to be a traditionalist about it, should not be doing. He plays to Trump’s vanity.

“I don’t think you think we’re the enemy of the people, do you?” the reporter asks, and gets the answer both he and Trump want.

“I don’t. I don’t,” Trump says in a soothing voice, characterizing his race-baiting and casual endorsement of violence as “my only form of fighting back” to one of the guys he’s committed to fighting, only not in front of such a small audience. And on HBO! Which is better than TV!

This reminded me of something Tom Arnold observed about Trump in a recent Salon interview. “With so many people, what he's doing is, he makes them feel good about themselves. He makes them feel powerful.”


(Arnold, by the way, refers to himself in his Viceland unscripted comedy as a citizen journalist. Having seen his show, I can confidently say that he is as much a journalist as I am a Ugandan submarine commander.)

There are more news reports and documentaries on this administration than one person can track. There’s also an ocean’s worth of stand-up comedy specials and episodes of “The Daily Show,” “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” “Last Week Tonight,” and any number of half-hours devoted to the merger of comedy and current events.

That Axios clip and the racist outpouring on the election trail over the past week bring to mind a number of reporters’ insights and frustrations with the current state of journalism as it's presented, wriggling in a no-win situation. Time and again, the media leaps to cover the rambling disinformation sessions that are Trump's rallies and stream-of-consciousness rants passing for press conferences. Afterward analysts waste time attempting to dissect the nonsense to obtain some meaning or, more often, to demonstrate their offense.

They spend more time collectively cocking their eyebrows at a visit by a loopy, attention-starved pop star to the Oval Office than paying attention to very important legislative efforts making the rounds whose effects stand to impact millions of Americans and, in many cases, push us deeper into the plutocracy into which we seem to be morphing. By the time that interview with Trump airs, I'm guessing its content will seem late and probably won't grant any heretofore unearthed insights into the man.

Whereas I suspect the majority of sane news consumers feel a lot more like Stewart: “I’m less interested in [Trump’s] insults than I am interested in his injuries, about the people being hurt,” he tells Amanpour.

But Amanpour isn’t quite ready to give up the fight for her profession as it was understood to be in the past, in that era before we abandoned fact and reason. “We the journalists — we, I think, believe that our job is to navigate the truth and to do the fact checking and all the rest of it.”

Stewart sagely replies, “But I think the journalists have taken it personally . . . They are personally wounded and offended by this man. He baits them. And they dive in. . . . Journalists stand up and say, ‘We are noble. We are honorable. How dare you, sir?’ And they take it personally.”

“And now he has changed the conversation to, not that his policies are silly or not working or any of those other things, it's all about the fight,” Stewart continues. “He is able to tune out everything else and get people just focused on the fight. And he's going to win that fight.”

For a couple of years now Trump has certainly proven that to be fact. But are journalists willing to heed the sage warning of a comic?

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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