Jay Rosen has a piece up on the persistent claim that Trump is a “media wizard” that has some good examples of that claim along with his own counter-arguments. I’m late to this discussion (he posted in May), but I thought it might be worth further considering this topic.
I think Rosen is correct in arguing that journalists prefer the notion of Trump as a master manipulator at least partly because it is more flattering to them. It is less-than-flattering to admit that the person outmaneuvering you has no master plan and is working mostly with a lack of impulse control. Rosen doesn’t much discuss the media from a systemic perspective, though, and so doesn’t address the structural factors (profit-driven, perpetual news cycles, etc.) that benefit Trump. Once we bring these into the conversation, we can recognize that Trump is precisely the kind of figure that this media ecosystem hopes to produce, and it is probably a fluke of history that someone exactly like him didn’t occupy the presidency sooner.
Beyond that, though, I think there is a more unsettling but crucial aspect of the dynamic between journalists and Trump that isn’t covered as frequently as the idea of Trump as media mastermind. This has to do with the image of the United States President and what the office is meant to represent to the public, as well as the media’s role in facilitating that image and representation. To be blunt about it, one of the (many) purposes of the presidency is to present a respectable and professional facade to American and international publics, one that can obscure the horrors this country routinely and systematically perpetuates. This obviously only works in certain places and in certain media markets, in places where it is possible to ignore, for example, an American military occupation, or routine police harassment of kids on their way to school, or the deliberate endangerment of certain communities by ignoring or aggravating public health crises. Because the idea of America as the model of a free, advanced nation is still of paramount importance to all major media outlets, then, the President-as-facade is an incredibly important role to prop up.
In order to do this, both the office-holder and the media have to work to maintain the “dignity” of the office. Whenever the President does something that might bring that dignity into question, the media takes it upon itself to determine what it means, how it affects the office and country, how that dignity might be restored, and on and on, with the assumption that the President acted in error and will return to behaving properly soon enough. Trump clearly does not care about any of this. He violates this implicit obligation of the office by being obnoxious and ignoring expectations of decorum. This frustrates the media establishment that has worked for so many years to help make the presidency something unique, something to be revered regardless of partisan orientation. As a result of witnessing what this establishment perceives as a crisis of decency (and therefore, perhaps, legitimacy), those in the media want to cover Trump’s behavior. Relentlessly. This puts them perpetually at the mercy of whatever Trump decides to do, say, or tweet at any given time.
Note that all of this concerns the personal behavior of the President and has nothing at all to do with his policies.
This is important because it also explains, at least in part, the recent urge by centrist and liberal-leaning media outlets to rehabilitate the images of conservatives like former President George W. Bush, despite their awful legacies. Relative to Trump, figures like Bush 2 and Reagan maintained the dignity of the office and so deserve to be recognized for that service in retrospect. Their less-egregious behavior can be held up as further proof that a) Trump truly is an anomaly and b) the office is something to be respected and honored, regardless of politics. This is how we now find ourselves with remarkable takes like “Bush respected Muslims” (because he verbally condemned hate crimes), despite the fact that he ordered the invasion of a Muslim-majority nation on false pretenses, surveilled and imprisoned Muslims domestically, and aggressively pushed a “with us or against us” narrative regarding terrorism that effectively placed all Muslims in the US under cultural and legal suspicion. The substance of his politics recedes in this narrative, because the office of the presidency itself must be maintained above all else.
Ultimately, it’s the commitment to the bipartisan ideal of the President as an honored public figure that makes stories like Trump’s ridiculous tweets, or his general tastelessness, so significant to the media. They will remain chasing these stories and being left in the dust so long as they continue to focus on the superficiality of the office, rather than the substance of the politics of whoever holds that office.