It appears “the media” has decided we’ve achieved “Peak Trump”. Over the past week coverage of the most fascinating politico-cultural phenomenon of the last generation — at minimum — has turned resoundingly sour and nasty. Conventional wisdom is that this has everything to do with the most recent run of Trump loutishness, beginning with the, uh, unflattering photo of Ted Cruz’ wife, followed by the campaign manager’s “arrest” for yanking the arm of a female reporter and then the business about punishing women who have abortions.
God knows the guy deserves everything he’s getting. But since Trump’s been at this kind of stuff since last summer (and let’s not forget his birther phase), the sudden turn of the NY/DC press establishment is kind of startling. The operative journalist group think explanation is that they are of course merely reporting “what’s out there”, and at the root of what’s out there is Team Trump’s cloddish attitude toward women. I mean, the guy’s a pig! A misogynist! And apparently … We just noticed!
Another (very) possible explanation, because it coincides so neatly with the turn in tone you hear in everything from the evening news, to cable pundits, including FoxNews, is that the press establishment is reacting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s recent “mea culpa” for the way he and the rest of his journalistic peer group have played “lapdog” for Trump’s ratings-goosing, ad revenue-spiking carnival act.
Said Kristof in his Sunday March 26 column:
“An analysis by The Times found that we in the news media gave Trump $1.9 billion in free publicity in this presidential cycle. That’s 190 times as much as he paid for in advertising, and it’s far more than any other candidate received. As my colleague Jim Rutenberg put it, some complain that ‘CNN has handed its schedule over to Mr. Trump’, and CNN had lots of company.”
It may be pure coincidence that the very week following Kristof’s self and peer flagellation the tide of coverage turned so resoundingly negative. But I suspect otherwise. It was the Times. It was a Sunday, and what Kristiof said was dead-on. Trump has been great for business. Full stop.
The counter to Kristof’s argument largely centered around the amount of Trump coverage that was “unfavorable”. The fistfights at rallies, the “mine’s bigger than yours” quality of GOP debates. All the crap. “We reported that bad stuff, too!” The problem with that defense is that a show biz creation like Trump truly does flourish in a world where all publicity is good publicity. (Shorthand: “All pub is good pub.”)
By another coincidence, last Tuesday I was talking with Chris Worthington, now the head of Minnesota Public Radio’s soon-to-premiere investigative unit. He of course had read Kristof’s piece and his takeaway was the part where Kristof says:
“We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. … Media elites rightly talk about our insufficient racial, ethnic and gender diversity, but we also lack economic diversity. We inhabit a middle-class world and don’t adequately cover the part of America that is struggling and seething. We spend too much time talking to senators, not enough to the jobless.”
Fundamentally, says Worthington, the story of Trump is the story of his voters. Who they are and why they believe what they believe. There is something to that, if only that were the essence of the coverage.
But on the subject of guilt, Kristof was also guilty of being too polite. (He works at The Times, y’know.)
It’s true “middle class” journalists, and people like Kristof and the celebrity anchors on CNN, MSNBC and Fox are comfortably beyond “middle-class”, and don’t spend a lot of time interacting with the country’s economically distressed. But I’m not convinced economics are a primary motivating factor of Trump’s appeal. Oh sure, he rails on about “terrible trade deals” and jobs some U.S. company has shifted off to Mexico. But I suspect it’s much more his “us against them” theme that grabs and sustains enthusiasm for his cause, and that doesn’t have all that much to do with anyone’s cash on hand, really.
More to the point, besides being busy and operating in a competitive business environment where group think powerfully influences editorial decision making, it’s the rare professional journalist who has a lot of spare time to listen to and dig deeper into the resentments of people who, as I’ve said before, don’t have reason to be complaining as much as they do. A single mom living on welfare? Sure. A laid off coal miner with black lung? Of course. A 40 year-old, high-school educated white guy driving a two year-old pickup, regularly hunting and drinking with his buddies? Not so much.
Traditional media makes regular, good faith effort to report on and demonstrate sympathy for the travails of people living under obvious social and economic oppression. What they have a harder time explaining — much less implicitly sympathizing with — is the plight of a fairly large chunk of the American population that believes it is entitled to more than it has ever made an effort to earn.
Very ironically, two of the best and most lacerating takes on this population have come from the conservative end of the spectrum.
Here’s Kevin Williamson in The National Review. Sample quote: “Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget [conservative hero Edmund] Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.” Or, put another way, Trump’s blame-placing people are their own worst enemy.
Then, over at The Weekly Standard, in a piece on GOP insider’s insider Mike Murphy, writer Matt LaBash says, “I’d like secure borders, more tightly controlled immigration, and would love to see manufacturing jobs come back as much as the next guy. But what about our own culpability in the nation’s decline? The technologies we so ravenously consume as our jobs get automated or algorithmed out of existence. We pretend as though character doesn’t count, then wonder why we get so many characters. We buy cut-rate Chinese goods at Walmart, or better still, on Amazon Prime, so we don’t have to put down the Doritos bag and budge from our easy-chair rage-stations as our passions get serially inflamed by Sean Hannity telling us how great we are and how hard we have it. Our consumption of everything seems to be increasing — of carbs, meth, anger-stoking shoutfests — even as our producers seem to be disappearing. Maybe we have unimpressive politicians because they’re our representatives, and we’ve become grossly unimpressive ourselves.”
Republican insiders specialize in sleight-of-hand class strategies that rarely if ever benefit the Doritos-munching rubes who never the less vote for their candidates. But “the media” which is now portending Trump’s demise is generally too polite to explore the reality these guys have been dealing with.