Media Mayhem Part I: Down on, Done with Donald


“I like what he’s saying. He’s bringing things out.“ No I don’t think (he would be a good President). “He doesn’t have some of the qualities needed…”
Nancy Zeller, retired nurse on CBS Evening News July 20, 2015

“Some days I’m hot and some days I’m cold. There’s things he’s saying that other politicians don’t have the guts to say…But he tends to be a little thin-skinned and retaliates too easily. When I see that out of Obama and his people, I detest it.”
George Smith, retired consultant in the Washington Post July 21, 2015

It is so over for Donald Trump. 

The Washington Post on the 21st ran only four articles on him instead of the standard six, and one of them actually focused on his past, how he avoided the draft (it was actually a copycat story of one done by Politico’s David Rogers).

Trump’s poll numbers are grossly misrepresented and grossly over-analyzed. Remember—no there is no reason to—that Michele Bachmann was leading in the polls at this time in 2011.

And on NBC Nightly News July 21, anchor Lester Holt finally made a slight reference to the truth about Trump, that his fiery launch into the political stratosphere may be “the direct result of (what does that How I met Your Mother star like to say?)—‘wait for it’—media exposure.”

Donald Trump is a media spectacle the likes of which we haven’t seen since the cheesy remake of Godzilla as a predatory, but now well-intentioned prehistoric beast. Hmmmm.

It is hard to decide whether the trumped-up media extravaganza, probably solely responsible for The Donald’s popularity, is a full-fledged media conspiracy, just good business, or a reflection of the naturally occurring dumbing down of America, which has been taking place in social media over the past decade.

The conspiracy theory is that the traditional media, who by their own admission are mostly liberal, see in Trump, a surgical instrument for carving the Republican Party a not-so flattering new face, force legitimate Republican candidates into isolation from which they can only exit if willing to say something nasty about Trump, and give a nice glossy sheen to the images of their marooned counterparts, Hillary, Martin, Jim, and Bernie.

The formula is pretty simple. It has been used before. The media carpet bomb the country with Trump day after day, night after night. Then they commission polling to verify what they’ve done, make Trump surge. Now the media are in the driver’s seat, reporting stories, creating news, and reporting it. In the meantime, Trump  fires another salvo. More coverage. More responses. More polling. News ad infinitum. Life in the Land of Oz is good.

The media, and their strange bedfellow Donald, have successfully transformed a popular entertainer into a popular politician and made him the now scarring face of the Republican Party, all in a short three weeks. In the meantime one of the politically richest, diverse, and dynamic fields of Republican candidates since 1980 is completely shoved off stage, with no voice, no visibility, and no recourse other than to lamely respond to Trump. Rand Paul has been reduced to doing chain-saw commercials.

So, a media conspiracy makes sense, especially in this new era of narrative journalism, blurred lines between information and opinion, and the breakdown of media outlets into ideological camps. What do they say on the cop shows? Means, motive, and opportunity, and in this case, premeditation.

But conspiracy theories are just that, theories, which are abstract suppositions borne of intelligent thinking and logical conclusions. That’s a lot to expect or suspect of the media. So, maybe not.

Maybe then Trump is just good business, for him and the media. Nobody knows business better than The Donald. He’s not dumb. He knows how to make money for him and for the media. He knows the ratings game better than most. He is obviously good business for the networks and major newspapers. Don Byers, writing in Politico: “Still, many political journalists chafe at the way the media has [sic] helped to fuel Trump’s rise. The outpouring of coverage is an example, some say, of how news outlets’ desire for ratings and traffic has diminished editorial judgment. Stories about Trump draw abnormally high viewership and readership, and many reporters fear that editors are commissioning Trump pieces solely to draw more eyeballs.”

“I get it. Trump saying crazy shit is candy,” one ‘prominent political journalist’ told Byers. “But let’s be honest about what this is about.” And: “Donald Trump is not a serious candidate and the candidates polling near him aren’t being covered the same way. It ‘s one thing to cover it, wholly another to be obsessed by it.”

The Washington Post has devoted more column inches to Trump in the last three weeks, than any one or several real news events.  Consider Iran, China, Syria, crumbling highways and dangerous bridges, declining education, cyber-security, terrorism, storms, drought, inequality, the economy, Greece. Pick a subject, any subject. Double dare you to compare the coverage.

The Post’s excuse for their Trump-a-mania from senior political editor, Steven Ginsberg, quoted by Byers, was a real knee slapper. Trump, he said is a serious influence and a new face of the Republican Party.  He should have stopped there, but went on to say,  “His (Trump’s) statements on immigration have led to a vigorous and revealing discussion about the issue among other candidates and within his party.”

The Trump obsession is clearly good business, but it is probably, as much, a reflection of the organic dumbing down of America.

The media fascination with Trump could be what my favorite retired journalist calls the Palin principle. Sarah Palin, one of the worst mistakes Senator John McCain ever made in politics, was for years the reverse image of Trump, a politician trying hard to be an entertainer. She became a novelty, an attractive, hillbilly heroine, who captured media attention with nothing more than a sharp-tongue and manicured quips tucked away in very simple sentences, but delivered with professionally-sophisticated precision. She was, for years, good theater, great ratings and comic relief from having to cover serious subjects and serious candidates seriously. She, like Trump, could take a complex issue such as immigration, dumb it down, and turn it into a rallying cry that encapsulated, maybe captured, public feeling, but not public judgment.

Trump, like Palin and Ross Perot before her, is what one observer called “a master craftsman in the art of rhetoric.” It’s like rubber-necking on a busy highway, this one political. Traffic is all backed up while everyone gets an eyeful of the hair and hutzpah. The other candidates sit behind the wheel of campaigns going nowhere.

There is a point along the political spectrum, however, where campaign rhetoric must be transformed into a dialogue that results in responsible governance, when rhetoric gives way to reason, when glittering generalities give way to intelligent discourse, and the sausage making of public policy. The dumbing down occurs when we no longer make the transformation from campaign hyperbole to responsible governance.

It is, for now, all Trump and more Trump, with news coverage, commentary, cartoons, and more coverage and more commentary and more cartoons, the media covering and covering the coverage, analyzing it from this way and that, poking here and scratching there, looking for some meaning, some reason, some justification. They have not found any. There is none.

Trumpetee, trumpetee, trump, trump, trumparoo. Can we ever get enough of Donald? The answer is yes, and very soon, now. The love affair between Trump and the media is much like Hollywood romances. They sizzle and then they fizzle.

Can’t wait.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.