You would think by now the mainstream media would have figured out how Trump operates.
Last week the White House dumpster fire was going nuclear. Puerto Rico was on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe “with little help in sight.” The right’s latest healthcare gambit, which would strip “at least 21 million” Americans of healthcare, was collapsing. Trump’s pick in the Alabama Senate special election was set to lose to a religious fundamentalist who makes the Taliban look moderate. To top it off, Trump was careening toward an actual nuclear war with North Korea one insult and a tweet at a time.
Cue the classic Trump misdirection. To change the conversation, he unleashed a fusillade of tweets attacking professional football players who have been protesting during the national anthem.
Now, there are real issues at stake here, namely systematic racism and police brutality that Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid first protested on bended knee in 2016. It’s an important news story, such as why the protest began, how Kaepernick, an above-average quarterback, has been blacklisted by NFL owners for his politics — exposing the systematic racism he was protesting to begin with — and how the same owners hypocritically jumped on the protest bandwagon and tried to turn it into a watered-down feel-good moment.
But few of these stories filtered into the major media. The New York Times took Trump’s bait in its Sunday edition by splashing five stories above the fold and framing the story as one of Trump versus the NFL and other sports stars. The Washington Post weighed in with six stories and a similar context.
In taking Trump at face value, the media are being his patsies. Trump gets to define the debate, he can dog-whistle to racists, the one consistent position he’s had his whole life, and then deny he was saying anything about race while attacking an NFL and NBA that are 70 percent Black. Most of all, Trump makes it “all about him,” the technique central to his fame and fortune and presidency.
This is not a new story. Every time Trump lands in a mess of his own making, he pivots to the attack with the aim of outraging, offending, and dividing to his benefit. Two long years ago, the New York Times pointed out how Twitter enabled Trump to “deflect the controversies he delights in touching off.”
But it’s more than Twitter. Trump needs the media to play its role in his reality T.V. world, to amplify his Tweets as news in their own right rather than point out that, objectively, he is running the same con game over and over again.
Since being elected, Trump has unleashed this blunt-force instrument with abandon. Seth Meyers cracked back in January that Trump’s tweets were either “a calculated distraction or the ramblings of an unhinged narcissist.”
On his first full day, Trump made the easily disprovable lie that he drew the largest inauguration crowd in history. He took just two days to flip the conversation to voter fraud with another lie, that he lost the popular vote to Clinton because millions of people cast ballots illegally.
Two months into his presidency, there was already a guide to the “Trump distraction technique.” Numerous other media outlets and commentators have followed suit. But it’s usually as commentary after Trump’s controversy hijacked the headlines. Foreign media, like The Guardian and Financial Times, have the distance to to say what is obvious with Trump’s latest Twitter tantrum: “The president’s attacks on sportspeople divert attention from Puerto Rico’s crisis.”
Back in March of 2016, Nate Silver explained how Trump had hacked the media: “Trump has been able to disrupt the news pretty much any time he wants, whether by being newsworthy, offensive, salacious or entertaining. The media has almost always played along.”
Eighteen months later the media is still playing along. Why? Some of it is the business of media. Trump’s knows his bombast attracts eyeballs, so the media, eager for an audience, will jump on his infantile pranks like retweeting GIFs of him hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball or body-slamming CNN.
But there are three bigger interrelated problems at work. One is the media’s traditional deference to power. At the U.N., when Trump said ahe would “totally destroy North Korea,” he was threatening to commit genocide. That is absent from Times reporting. The Washington Post did point it out, including the fact his words could count as “conspiracy and public incitement” to commit genocide, but only in an opinion article.
Most U.S. media venerate the presidency because they view its unrivaled power as the primary source of legitimacy for America and themselves. So they are loathe to undermine it, even when it is Trump debasing it.
This raises the second problem, of objectivity. Silver points out “Trump has frequently invoked misogyny and racism; he has frequently lied, and he has repeatedly encouraged violence against political protesters.” Thus, these are “matters of fact and not opinion and to describe them otherwise would make our reporting less objective.”
Yet to this day, the New York Times can muster only that Trump “has long appeared to sanction violence.” The media treat whatever the president has to say as truth until definitely proven otherwise. This is the third problem: to the media, appearance is reality.
The media is obsessed with images and process. Conversely, they say little about the terrifying reality behind Trump’s tweets. One expert puts “the chances of conventional conflict with North Korea at 50-50 and the chances of nuclear war at 10%.” Or how Trump is deliberately abandoning nearly 4 million U.S. citizens to destruction, disease and death in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Or how one study found Trumpcare could kill close to half-a-million Americans in a decade. Half-a-million.
To be fair, the mainstream media are on to the method of Trump’s madness. But they relegate that to opinions, rather than treating his distraction techniques as the objective facts they are. That is the problem. For a narrative to change public perception it has to be the dominant story.
That is how the Bush administration successfully lied its way into the Iraq War. Some in the media disputed the falsehood that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. But generally the media treated Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs as fact or even embellished the lies, most infamously by Judith Miller at the New York Times. By doing so, the media paved the way for an illegal war that spread to neighboring countries, is still ongoing, and has claimed perhaps 1 million lives in total.
Trump has gone further by making the media his chief enemy while still depending on them to be his suckers. And it’s working. He is already shifting from his spat with NFL players back to North Korea and the media are following along. It’s all part of Trump’s strategy to create one crisis after another at a whiplash pace to keep everyone off balance.
The powers that be still don’t grasp how Trump works. Until the mainstream media realize they need to treat his hypocrisy, venality, and barbarism as a fact and not an opinion, Trump will continue to call the shots. Perhaps even into a second term.