Republican front-runner Donald Trump announced yesterday that he was pulling out of Thursday night’s debate on Fox News, citing a refusal to share the stage with network anchor Megyn Kelly. Trump has subjected Kelly to any number of insults, gendered and otherwise: “bimbo,” “blood coming out of her wherever,” and the more garden-variety accusations of stupidity or incompetence. And yet, as is the nature of trolls everywhere, it’s Trump that claims the grievance against Kelly, protesting that her questioning of him—a tactic we in the media biz call “journalism”—is biased, disingenuous, and/or mean-spirited.
It’s a display of petulance that puts many of us in the odd position of siding with Fox News on something; this, when Fox News and the GOP have spent the last decade or two propping each other up with bad faith and worse rhetoric. Trump is the first Republican candidate to antagonize Fox News, creating a major break in this lucrative arrangement.
In October, James Poniewozik at the New York Times observed that Trump’s candidacy, and its subsequent success, drew from the logic of reality television:
It would be reductive — and dismissive of the conservative and populist forces behind Mr. Trump’s rise — to say that his campaign simply means that politics has become reality TV. But Mr. Trump’s style does suggest that he learned at least as much about campaigning in the boardroom of “The Apprentice” as in any actual boardroom… It’s “The Real World” approach to politics: Let me show you, America, what happens when candidates stop being polite and start getting real!
This seems more relevant than ever, as Trump’s threats to Fox News about Kelly’s presence at the debate ended up escalating to a point that most political candidates will never admit to. “Let’s see how much money Fox is going to make on the debate without me,” he bragged, at a news conference in Marshalltown, Iowa. “Let them have their debate, and let’s see how they do with the ratings.”
It is a testament both to Trump’s media savvy and to the sorry state of journalism in America that this threat is a very real one. It’s awkward to bring up the fact that cable news—and broadcast news, and all news, in all media—are, in this country, purely capitalistic ventures that rely on ratings success to justify their existence. Trump, like ebola back in 2014, is a ratings boon; a polarizing and seemingly unassailable force of kinetic buzz, a perpetual sound bite machine. He has no shame and no principles, and as a result, he effortlessly capitalizes on the broken and vulnerable American news-entertainment complex.
Trump is, in one human-size and poorly coiffed package, a better argument for public-interest journalism—à la BBC News, except here in the States—than any lefty socialist’s coffee-shop ramblings (though call us any time, that’s available, too). Trump knows that there is no news, just infotainment; he can throw his weight around about Kelly because he knows he can juice the ratings on “Saturday Night Live,” “Good Morning America,” “The Apprentice,” or Thursday night’s debates, depending on what he feels like doing on that day.
It’s a method that crowds out dialogue and connection, in favor of splash and polarization—in a media climate that inherently leans toward the easily packaged story, whether that is through sound bite or gif, more than the rigor of thorough questioning. And though I do not share most of her politics, it’s alarming that Trump is leveraging his considerable media savvy against not even Fox News, the network, but Megyn Kelly, the woman; demanding she lose her job, or be demoted from her status, so that the network can keep its cushy relationship with the current GOP front-runner. There is another, and far more worrying trend here, about how craven attempts to maintain business relationships prevents women from succeeding, whether that’s Ellen Pao, Adria Richards or Brianna Wu. But while Trump works on making America great again—apparently by waiting for a phone call from Rupert Murdoch himself, because Fox News CEO Roger Ailes has gotten on the wannabe president’s precious nerves—we have plenty of time to contemplate how depressingly successful the media’s biggest troll has become.