Because you’re reading this newspaper, or any newspaper for that matter, you’re probably horrified by U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing behaviour.
What grown man with a nuclear arsenal at his fingertips has either the time or the inclination to tweet an old WWE video of himself clothes-lining a man with a CNN logo for a face? To even write that sentence beggars belief.
But it happened, just like last week’s jihad against a pair of morning show hosts happened, just like the false claims of Obama wiretapping happened, and just as James Comey’s firing happened. No matter how poorly each Trump move is received by the press, the president always manages to serve up another foul scoop.
How much critical coverage will it take to force a change in Trump’s behaviour?
Talk about the wrong question. The problem in covering someone who is elected to buck the conventional wisdom - as Trump surely was - is that conventional wisdom isn’t likely to buck them out of office. Bad press in the “elite” media targeted to other “elites” won’t do the trick. Not on its own, anyway.
The first step in holding Trump to account is to understand what metrics his supporters use to hold him accountable. This isn’t a mystery. One only has to return to the frozen cornfields of Iowa circa January 2016, where candidate Trump (helpfully) unearthed his own Rosetta Stone.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump bragged in Sioux City. The media dutifully clutched their pearls and Trump’s supporters ... clapped.
Trump’s point wasn’t literal, it was that he had the cast-iron support of his people, and that nothing the “elites” could say about him (including the media) would matter. The point was prescient and remains true to this day.
And so for CNN to whine, as they did earlier this week, that the president should put down the Twitter machine and “start doing his (job)” only plays into Trump’s hands. For the Commander in Chief and his supporters, blasting the media is his job. When media critics like CNN’s Brian Stelter compare Trump’s tactics ominously with those of Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, and Hugo Chavez it’s a win. Trump’s supporters love their man’s (perceived) machismo.
If anything, the news media’s whining about Trump’s treatment of the news media only gives the president another positive news cycle in the not-so-news “media” followed by his most fervent supporters. It cements his virtue.
For Trump diehards the (almost entirely negative) saturation coverage provoked by the president’s tweets prove the media care more about the media than they do about their more mundane, ordinary lives. First amendment, schmirst amendment. Where is the media outrage at the loss of jobs, rampant illegal immigration, or out-of-control prescription drug addiction?
Of course, media are covering those issues, but anyone with eyes and ears watching cable news will see far more coverage of the day’s insider tattle (like the WWE bit) than they will about the issues facing the country. Yes, this is partly because Trump’s team does everything it can to pick that particular fight, but nobody said the media had to be dumb enough to take the bait.
To crack Trump, the mainstream media need to flip the problem on its head; they need to think politically and realize that their base (i.e. “elites”) already cares as much as is humanly possible about Trump’s bad behaviour. The challenge is to convince Trump’s supporters that some of what their president is doing isn’t all that great for them.
This means ignoring the president’s anti-media blatherings (and the boffo ratings they create) and sticking to health care reform. It means brushing off the insults. Imagine if CNN had ditched their haughty statement in favour of superimposing their logo on a wrestler’s head as that wrestler hoisted the title belt?
It would never happen, of course. Most journalists see themselves as neutral observers bound by Marquess of Queensberry rules, even if a bare-knuckled president with a fondness for low blows has dragged them into the ring.
If they’re going to continue to observe convention and not become active participants, the least the media can do until they sort out how to cover Trump is stop whining to people who don’t care about their fate.