Part I: The Beauty Contest
Why do they hate us?
We in the press always screw up this question.
Many of the biggest journalistic fiascoes in recent history involved failed attempts at introspection. Whether on behalf of the country or ourselves, when we look in the mirror, we inevitably report back things that aren’t there.
We fumbled “Why do they hate us?” badly after 9/11, when us was guiltless America and they were Muslims in the corrupt Middle Eastern petro-states we supported.
We made a joke of it during the Occupy protests, when “Why are they so angry?” somehow became a common news feature assignment after a fraud-ridden financial services sector put millions in foreclosure and vaporized 40% of the world’s wealth.
More recently, we’ve cycled through a series of unconvincing responses to Why do they hate us?- themed stories like Brexit, the Bernie Sanders primary run of 2016, and the election of Donald Trump.
We’ve botched them all, for reasons that range from incompetence to willful blindness. The Trump story in particular was an industry-wide, WMD-level failure that exposed many of our worst weaknesses (I was part of the problem, too) and remains a serious concern headed into 2020.
But the story that flummoxes us most has to do with our own business.
Everyone hates the media. Nobody in the media seems to understand why.
An oft-cited Gallup poll taken just after the 2016 election showed just 20% of Americans expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers.
An 80% no-confidence vote would be cause for concern in most professions. Reporters, however, have been unimpressed with the numbers.
Some of this surely has to do with the fact that the media business, at least at the higher end, has been experiencing record profits since Donald Trump tabbed us the “enemy of the people.” In the “Democracy Dies In Darkness” era, many in the press wear their public repudiation like badges of honor, evidence that they’re on the right journalistic track.
Few seem troubled by the obvious symbiosis between Trump’s bottom-feeding, scandal-a-minute act and the massive boom in profits suddenly animating our once-dying industry (even print journalism, a business that pre-Trump seemed destined to go the way of New Coke or 8-track tapes, has seen a big bump in the Trump years).
We certainly didn’t worry about it early in 2015, when the unseemly amount of attention paid to Trump-as-ratings-phenomenon gave the insurgent candidate billions in free publicity and helped secure his nomination.
Later, as Trump cruised toward the nomination, media execs couldn’t hide their excitement. Since-disgraced CBS jackass Les Moonves blurted out that Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” adding, “the money’s rolling in.”
Comments like these caused anti-press complaints to come pouring in, this time not from flyover country (where hatred of the “elite” press was already considered a given within the business) but from urban, left-leaning intellectuals, a.k.a. the media’s home crowd.
These complaints came mainly in two forms. One came from dreary ratings-killing lefties like Ralph Nader, who focused on the entire system of commercial media. Nader said that campaign coverage had devolved into a profit bonanza in which media firms “cash in and give candidates a free ride.”
The former third-party candidate also noted that the constant attention paid to people like Trump excluded other voices, including “leading citizens who could criticize the process.” (Like, presumably, Ralph Nader, although he had a point).
I remember watching Nader’s comments with interest, having just returned from covering Trump’s nomination-sealing win in the Indiana primary. Trump had beaten Ted Cruz, a politician who tried his damnedest to be as cruel and reactionary from a policy standpoint as Trump, but was out of his league when it came to manipulating sensationalist campaign media coverage.
Cruz was routed in Indiana after Trump took the highly creative step of accusing Cruz’s father of helping assassinate John F. Kennedy. The correct response for Cruz in that media climate would probably have been to counter-accuse Trump of eating Christian babies, or maybe buggering Lenin’s corpse (the Democrats would later catch on and try a version of this). But Cruz didn’t get it and actually denied the JFK charges, which of course had the practical effect of just making us think about them more. “Garbage!” he told reporters.
Worse, Cruz’s wife Heidi was asked by a Yahoo! reporter if her husband was the Zodiac Killer, a popular Internet meme at the time. She, too, made the mistake of answering in earnest, providing more headlines. “I’ve been married to him for 15 years and I know pretty well who he is, so it doesn’t bother me,” was her answer.
I was at the miserable Cruz “victory” party in Indianapolis on the night of May 3, 2016, when the returns came in. A lot of reporters present were joking about Heidi’s answer. Many noted that it was a “non-denial denial” and “exactly what the wife of the real Zodiac would say” (this hot take later made it into a lot of real news reports, including, embarrassingly, my own).
The pretense that the presidential campaign was anything but an insane absurdist reality show was almost completely gone by that point. Reporters were openly enjoying the ridiculousness of it all. Many of us tasked with its daily updates had given into the campaign’s grotesque commercialism several election cycles before Trump even arrived on the scene.
To digress briefly: the campaign process, for a generation, has been too long by at least a year. With each cycle, it grew even more unnecessarily protracted, and increasingly abhorred real policy discussions. By the seventies and eighties, when the nomination process left the smoke-filled room and became a more public affair, it became a kind of elite beauty contest in which Washington journalists assumed the role of judges.
Pre-Trump, the two-year saga was really a series of tests whose purpose was to produce obedient major-party mannequins worthy of “Miss Republican Orthodoxy” or “Miss Democrat Orthodoxy” sashes. There were both political and commercial elements to this dynamic.
We routinely flunked candidates in our version of the swimsuit competition. Dennis Kucinich was hounded for his “elfin” appearance, and others, like Bobby Jindal, were dismissed with sleazy code terms like, “He doesn’t look presidential.”
Myriad class/race/gender biases were hidden just in this one “presidential” descriptor, in addition to flat out high-school style shallowness celebrating looks, height even jockiness. To reassure us on that last point, candidates learned to “relax” by shooting baskets or tossing footballs around us in highly scripted episodes that went sideways with unsurprising frequency. Marco Rubio boinking an Iowan child in the face with a terrible spiral is the most recent viral classic of the genre.
Other tests, like the “most nuanced” competition (awarded to the candidate most adept at advocating the appearance of policy action instead of the real thing) helped produce the likes of John Kerry as a nominee. Kerry himself then lost to George W. Bush when the press flunked him by another asinine standard, the now-infamous “likability” test.
Heading into the 2016 race, pundits were openly celebrating all of this. We were proud of the dumbed-down barriers to political power we’d created. We bragged incessantly about how the “candidate you’d most want to have a beer with” had practically become a formal part of the process. We even made Barack Obama submit to this horseshit. “The president has been polishing his ‘regular guy’ credentials by talking a lot about beer,” explained NPR (NPR!) in 2012.
By the last election, outlets like the Daily Beast cheerfully described the “beer standard” as the key to winning the “likability Olympics.”
It was therefore stunning to watch the universal lack of insight when the anti-candidate who rampaged through our idiotic campaign carnival in 2016 was not only a reality star, but also a beauty contest aficionado. Trump was a demon from hell sent to punish all of these reporting sins.
He was like Tony Clifton snuck into the Miss Universe pageant, doing a farts-only version of Stairway to Heaven as the musical portion. He pissed on “nuance” and spent his campaign flouting our phony “presidential” standard.
So long as we thought he couldn’t actually win, most of us in the press were hugely entertained, even flattered. Floating on soaring ratings and click numbers, we cheerfully reported all of his antics. Yet very few picked up on the fact that the joke was on us, that Trump was winning votes precisely by running against our sham beauty contest.
As soon as it became clear that Trump was going to secure the nomination, however, a new kind of criticism of the media began to appear. This one was of the When A Stranger Calls variety: it came from inside the house, i.e. from within our own ranks.
High priests of conventional wisdom like Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times began running pieces in early 2016 with titles like, “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump.” Kristof talked a bit about the commercial dynamics of the business, and he did cop to the “mother lode” of ratings Trump provided. But in the end, his key conclusion read:
It’s not that we shouldn’t have covered Trump’s craziness, but that we should have aggressively provided context in the form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals.
Around the same time that Kristof’s much-discussed column came out, Obama gave a speech at Syracuse in honor of Robin Toner, the first black woman to be a national Times correspondent. Though the speech didn’t mention Trump by name, it was clearly about Trump, and the media’s role in bringing about his success.
It was obvious that Obama had deeply-held feelings about the subject. This was natural given Trump’s role in pushing the vicious birther campaign. Trump was one of the few figures capable of inspiring Obama to break character.
Obama, like Kristof, touched on the profit motive. He went much deeper than Kristof in his assessment of the media’s structural problems, however, essentially saying that it was our intentional, profit-motivated indulgence of stupidity and mindless conflict that had brought us to this dark place. I personally was surprised he didn’t lead with a diatribe about how Washington reporters are so dumb, you can get them to call you a “regular guy” just by publishing a beer recipe on the White House web site.
But he stuck to hounding us for valuing profit over substance. “The choice between what cuts into your bottom lines and what harms us as a society is an important one,” he scolded.
Ultimately Obama landed near to Kristof in this critique:
A job well done is about more than just handing someone a microphone. It is to probe and to question, and to dig deeper, and to demand more.
Some pundits rejected the notion that Trump was the media’s fault. The Guardian around this time even did a “fact check” about this nebulous question (how does one “fact check” such a premise?). The paper concluded that there were “reasons to raise doubt” about our culpability in causing the Trump phenomenon, with the true observation that Trump voters don’t pay attention to our fact-checks anyway being one of the listed reasons.
But by the summer of 2016, it became accepted belief in our ranks that “the media” had created Trump. Reform became the watchword of the day. It was eye-opening to watch how quickly my colleagues ran from their own “likability” cliché once it began to look like it might be a factor in the increasingly infamous race. This was despite the fact that virtually every poll showed that Trump was actually significantly more disliked than his Democratic opponent.
Characteristically, there was no remorse over the fact that we had overemphasized the likability factor for a generation, helping ruin the candidacies of wonky dullards like Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, Kerry, and even Mitt Romney in the process. (“Professorial” was one of our negative code words for too policy-centric candidates).
Instead, it was now determined that “likability” was only a problem in this particular race, because (pick one) it wasn’t actually true about Hillary, or it was sexist, or because we reporters just mistake dedication, seriousness, and workaholism for a lack of charisma. People actually liked Hillary, or if they didn’t they were wrong not to, or we were wrong to report the fact – or something.
“How much do voters have to like their politicians?” wondered Time, the same magazine that had put a giant black-and-white photo of Hillary over the headline LOVE HER HATE HER (check one) in 2006, back when this sort of analysis was not considered world-imperiling stupidity.
The Atlantic in 2012 had reinforced the cult of likability with a long piece explaining Obama’s dominance of Romney by writing, “In every instance [since 1984] the candidate seen as more likable won the election.” In 2016, the same outlet trashed likability as a moral wrong, saying we shouldn’t want a leader on our level, but one “demonstrably above us.”
Beyond such changes, reporters on the trail began to sound sheepish notes, as if chastened by public displeasure. They began to talk about recasting their whole approach to Trump, and soon, we did.
Under the new formulation, One Million Hours of Trump became One Million Hours of Trump (is bad!). Conveniently for our sales reps, the new dictum centered around the idea that we not only should not reduce the volume of TrumpMania, we must if anything increase it, because we now had an enhanced “responsibility” to “call him out.”
We would hear a lot about “responsibility” in the coming years from the same people who still remind us every four years (and even, sometimes, in between) that Mike Dukakis is an all-time loser because he allowed himself to be photographed in a tank.
Because Trump was a demagogue who played “to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies,” we had to “throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century” and “approach [Trump] in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.”
Rutenberg argued that we had to cast ourselves free of the moorings of “objectivity,” and redefine fairness, fact, and truth. We should now be “true to the facts… in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.”
The Rutenberg column never explained why changing a factual approach was necessary, if the Trump fact pattern was as bad as it was (and it was). Bad candidates and bad politicians looked bad even under the old “objectivity” standard, the old language, the old headlines. What were we changing and why?
Rutenberg said we had to grit our teeth and give up “balance, that idealistic form of journalism with a capital ‘J’ we’ve been trained to always strive for.” Why? Because “now that he is the Republican nominee for president, the imbalance is cutting against [Trump].” An increased effort to scrutinize this candidate, call out his shit, etc., would hurt him at the polls, the theory went.
In reality, this column helped plant the seeds of the infamous symbiosis of today. What Rutenberg really meant by giving up “balance” wasn’t going after Trump more – we already were calling him every name in the book – but de-emphasizing scrutiny of the other side.
Announcing this gave Trump an opening to blast the press even more as being biased against him, validating his paranoid politics. Conversely, the posture rallied the core audiences of papers like the Times, at least for a while. A year after Rutenberg’s column, the paper was reveling in a so-called “Trump bump” in subscriptions, with the fourth quarter of 2016, when the Times had the honor of giving horrified audiences the bad news about Trump’s election, being its best year since it launched a digital pay model.
By the summer of 2018, however, the “Trump bump” was gone and the paper was seeing most of its digital growth in crosswords and cooking. However, it still had the honor of having ditched its ancient and hard-fought reputation for objectivity in pursuit of a few quarters of growth.
One additional bizarre Trump-inspired change to reporting that took place in 2016 involved polls: we increasingly ignored data favorable to Trump and pushed surveys suggesting a Clinton landslide. The Times ran a piece in October pronouncing the race essentially over, telling us to expect a “sweeping victory at every level” for Clinton. The papers all through the race were full of confident predictions and demographic analyses with titles like, “Relax, Trump Can’t Win” and “Donald Trump’s Six Stages of Doom.”
These stories were a crucial poker tell. The ostensible reason for our new adversarial posture was to advocate against Trump. But underreporting the seriousness of the Trump threat didn’t help Democrats at all. If anything, the opposite was true. De-fanging data reporting dulled attention to correctable weaknesses in the Clinton support base and, who knows, perhaps even motivated a voter or a thousand to stay home out of unconcern.
On the other hand, such reports got lots of clicks from blue state voters, thanks to the same dynamic that inspires sports fans to read rosy predictions even when their teams suck. The vibe was closer to fanboy homerism (which incidentally is completely defensible in an entertainment genre like sports-writing) than “advocacy reporting.”
Trump’s victory came as a complete shock to millions in large part because of this quirk in the sub-genre of data reporting, whose whole purpose was to be a buffer against conventional wisdom and groupthink.
Election Day, 2016 was a historic blow to American journalism. It was as if we’d invaded Iraq and discovered there were no WMDs in the same few hours. Almost immediately, new conventional wisdom coalesced that explained the coverage failures in ways that incentivized future mistakes.
Chomsky and Herman wrote about how the elite reaction to America’s military loss in Vietnam was to create a revisionist history that not only steered us away from the reality of American crimes and policy failures, but set the stage for future invasions and occupations. The post-Vietnam story blamed an “excess of democracy” for the loss, especially in the media: loserific criticism of our prospects for victory undermined the popular resolve to keep fighting a winnable war.
So the press sheepishly abandoned a lot of its “excessively democratic” practices. We stopped showing deaths in battle, coffins coming home, etc. If you did any war zone reporting, you had to be “embedded” as part of an American unit, a practice that gave most war reporting a Stars and Stripes flavor. Even I submitted to these conditions.
In the same way, conventional wisdom after the 2016 vote steered attention away from the generation of press practices that had degraded the presidential campaign process to the point where the election of someone like Trump could even be possible.
Any real assessment of what happened would have focused on the fact that the campaign press had been so pompous for so long in telling voters what “presidential” meant, and in dictating fealty to crass stupidities like “nuance” and “the beer standard,” that voters entering 2016 were of course willing to cheer any pol with the insight to tell us to fuck off. The subtext of all of this, of course, was that our rants about beer and “likability” and so on were only the Washington press corps’ idea of what was important to a voter in flyover country.
Given that most actual voters were sunk in debt, working multiple jobs, often uninsured, saddled with ruined credit scores, and often battling alcohol and opiate addiction and other problems, it was a horrific aristocratic insult to tell people every four years that what really mattered to them was what candidate looked most convincing carrying a rifle on a duck hunt. But we were so out of touch, we doubled down on these insults every four years.
That this was a huge part of Trump’s appeal was obvious. But it was left out of electoral post-mortems.
Instead, the legend became that we hadn’t been obnoxious enough during the election season. What America really needed, the press barons decided, was a more directly didactic approach about who was and was not an appropriate political choice.
The same pundit class that had raised us on moronic messaging like Newsweek’s “Fighting the Wimp Factor” cover of George H.W. Bush created a new legend about how the Trump-era press corps had learned its lesson, and would be returning to its more natural role as serious-minded opponents of dumb populism.
For example, we weren’t going to screw around with words like “misstatement” anymore. The new Press Corps Mark V would put the word “lie” in headlines. Go ahead and see if we wouldn’t. We were tough now.
No less a figure than Dan Rather sounded the “lie” bugle as we entered the era of – gulp – president Trump. Rather’s take was in response to a Meet The Press segment in which Times executive editor Dean Bacquet and Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker harrumphed at length as they debated this use of the “lie.”
Eventually there was a great collective patting of backs when most of the major papers and networks decided to approve the forbidden word. Worse, despite the fact that the entire journalism business had just been forced to eat cauldrons of shit after its nearly two-year collection of misreads and smug dismissals of Trump’s chances had exploded, Space Shuttle-style, on Election Day, papers and news networks everywhere were suddenly congratulating themselves for their new #Resistance fight-the-power posture. (Incidentally, what were we doing before Trump? Not challenging power?) The Washington Post, for fuck’s sake, actually ran a Behind the Music-type feature about how it settled on its new “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan.
Around the same time that Bacquet and Baker were holding their televised discussion about journalism’s future, I was interviewing Bernie Sanders about the lessons of the 2016 race. He didn’t use this language, but one of the big takeaways for Sanders from his run was that nobody out there gave a shit about Meet the Press:
What politics passes for now is somebody goes on Meet the Press and they do well: “Oh, this guy is brilliant, wonderful.” No one cares about Meet the Press.
Sanders spoke of the divide between the public and elite institutions, of which the press was now clearly considered one.
“It’s not just the weakness of the Democratic Party and their dependency on the upper middle class, the wealthy, and living in a bubble,” he said. “It is a media where people turn on the television, they do not see a reflection of their lives. When they do, it is a caricature. Some idiot.”
When Sanders won the New Hampshire primary, Stephen Colbert invited him on the show — and had drink beer and eat peanuts. “If you like boiled peanuts, it’ll certainly give you a leg up in South Carolina,” Colbert said.
Trump’s election kicked off a lengthy period of personal despair for me, but not for the reasons you’d guess.
2016 was the fourth presidential election campaign I’d covered for Rolling Stone. Across all those races I’d been forced into a highly unusual position. The other “kids in the class” were constantly finking on me for various reasons. On my first-ever day on the trail for the magazine in 2004, an unnamed reporter called Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post to complain – this really happened – because I’d broken an unwritten rule by taking video of the press section without permission. I was also “spoken to” by a Kerry press aide, who relayed complaints of other unnamed reporters.
Later, when colleagues on that same trip went after Kerry for reaction after Matt Drudge published an unsubstantiated rumor that Kerry had a mistress, I made the mistake of asking other reporters on the plane why we were giving this story life without doing any work to see if it was true first. Reporters took in the treacherous fact that I was doing a story on us with varying degrees of fury.
“This,” one reporter said to me, waving a hand across the press seats in the Kerry campaign plane, “is a fucking no-fly zone, dude.”
After that incident the Kerry campaign (which had been the victim of the Drudge bumrush, remember) acquiesced to demands from other trail reporters and had me sent to the back of the plane, with the techies and documentarian Alexandra Pelosi. This should have struck me as a vivid demonstration of the unnatural relationship between campaigns and press corps, and of the group policing instinct that also led campaign reporters to school candidates in various unwritten political rules about “nuance” and “likability.” But at the time I just thought being stuck in the back of the plane was funny.
I didn’t agree with the core idea that reporters weren’t “part of the campaign story” and therefore should be exempt from all questions. But in subsequent elections I gave in to the argument that we couldn’t do our jobs without having a “safe work space,” and stopped hassling colleagues.
In 2008 and beyond, though, I kept getting in the soup. Because my print schedule was so different everyone else’s – I only had to file once every few weeks or months – I spent a lot of time twiddling my thumbs in filing rooms. Hour after hour, I watched colleagues slave away three or four times a day to send out the Urgent News that Fred Thompson or Mike Huckabee or whoever had just given the same speech he’d given fifty times in a row.
To pass the time I’d often read (in Iowa, I was hissed at by campaign staffer for turning the pages of a Sports Illustrated too loudly) or do even dumber things (a Rubik’s cube earned a rebuke in Houston). I finally learned that the only safe activity during filing hours was to do nothing. So I sat there, hour after hour, primary after primary, just thinking about what we were doing.
By 2012 I had a theory of the presidential campaign as a complex commercial process. On the plane, two businesses were going on in tandem. The candidates were raising money, which mostly entailed taking cash from big companies in exchange for policy promises. In the back, reporters were gunning for hits and ratings. The candidate who most quickly found the middle ground between these two dynamics would become the nominee. Any candidate who was both good at raising money and deemed a suitable lead actor for the media’s campaign reality show – who was “likable” and “nuanced” but also not too “left” or “weak on defense” or espousing of “fringe” politics like Nader or Ron Paul – would be allowed to move on to the general.
Journalists and candidates were not just political partners, but business partners. There was a massive sales aspect to the job that led reporters to take liberties with the truth more or less constantly. Politicians, even at their own expense, were often willing to help them there.
In 2012, there was consternation among campaign reporters early on that it was going to be hard to “sell” the Obama-Romney general as suspenseful, since we all got the feeling that Obama would win easily. This was not because of polls, but largely because of the same kinds of non-quantitative clues we would ignore in 2016: Obama’s events were uproarious and huge, whereas Romney struggled to pack halls even in his home state, and seemed to be every Republican’s third choice.
I went on CNN in the middle of that race and said aloud that reporters were pushing polls showing a close race just to rescue ratings. Despite the fact that everyone was saying this behind the scenes, I was the only one dumb enough to say it out loud. Noted Democratic consultant James Carville quickly came out to address the fact that he’d heard the same talk in private, and admonished everyone to remember that “complacency is dangerous” and Obama could lose.
Before long, we saw the remarkable phenomenon of Democrat-leaning pundits everywhere praising the absurdly maladroit Romney as a contender. The Independent called Obama “limp” (about the worst comment you get from a campaign reporter) and expressed shock that Obama wasn’t fighting harder against Romney, because anyone who has “seen him play pick-up basketball” knows “how competitive [Obama] is.” (You see how all of this idiocy ties together; as if one can actually glean anything from watching a politician play basketball!).
Meanwhile Carville praised Romney’s nonexistent debating skills, saying he “came in with a chainsaw.” Another high priest of conventional wisdom, CNN’s self-described “centrist” David Gergen, declared, “We’ve got a horse race.”
We didn’t, of course. Obama won with relative ease. But even if Romney had somehow taken advantage and won, the Gergens of the world wouldn’t have shed a tear: having a tax-slashing leveraged buyout artist in the White House, a Mormon Gordon Gekko, would have been okay with most of these clowns.
It was the ultimate demonstration of the Manufacturing Consent principle of a concocted, artificially narrowed public debate. We were meant to understand that the distance between Romney and Obama was vast, that much was at stake, with the outcome in doubt.
In reality everyone knew the outcome, and the people bleating the loudest about “dangerous complacency” would have shrugged at seeing a banker-supported private equity titan replace Barack Obama, who by then was in his fourth year of letting Wall Street toadies like Tim Geithner and Citigroup execs like Jack Lew lead his post-crash economic policy.
After 2012 I knew that any candidate smart enough to run against all this insanity would do well. When I saw in early 2016 that Trump was doing exactly this, I had a flash of insight he was going to be president. In the first feature I wrote about Trump, I talked about how he was looking “unstoppable,” and explained:
It turns out we let our electoral process devolve into something so fake and dysfunctional that any half-bright con man with the stones to try it could walk right through the front door and tear it to shreds on the first go.
And Trump is no half-bright con man, either. He’s way better than average.
I went back to Rolling Stone after that trip and insisted to everyone in the office that Trump was going to win the White House. They all thought I was crazy. This was not something I was happy about, but I understood it. The most devastating part of Trump’s campaign is that we’d spent decades giving him the ammunition he would need to punch his way to the top. When Trump talked about conspiracies of elites, he was not 100% wrong, and this was not going to change going forward.
During the Republican primary, he spoke at length about things that by tradition we rarely discussed on the trail, like the financial backers who often traveled with the candidates. “Do you think Jeb Bush is going to make drug prices competitive?” Trump asked. “He’s got Woody Johnson as his head of fund-raising.” Johnson was the head of Johnson & Johnson, of course a major drugmaker.
Johnson and a slew of other big Pharma execs had been in the room during the Republican debate the night before. Johnson & Johnson was of particular interest because it owns Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which among other things makes Fentanyl, the drug reportedly responsible for about half of the 72,000 overdose deaths last year. Trump didn’t mention this — in fact he crudely blamed New Hampshire’s drug problems on dealers “across the souther border” — but he was giving voters a peek into the kingmaking process. No major candidate that I could remember had talked about the donors being in the room during debates.
I knew Trump would use the same tactics against Clinton he’d used against Bush, and wrote:
Trump will surely argue that the Clintons are the other half of the dissolute-conspiracy story he’s been selling, representing a workers’ party that abandoned workers and turned the presidency into a vast cash-for-access enterprise, avoiding scrutiny by making Washington into Hollywood East and turning labor leaders and journalists alike into starstruck courtiers.
As with everything else, Trump personalizes this, making his stories of buying Hillary’s presence at his wedding a part of his stump speech. A race against Hillary Clinton in the general, if it happens, will be a pitch right in Trump’s wheelhouse.
Later, Trump did in fact make it a point to describe Clinton and Jeb Bush as basically the same politician, only Clinton had even “less energy.” In the general, he relentlessly pounded NAFTA and the TPP to hammer home the idea that he was the friend of the worker (this, from the same person who said auto workers were overpaid and threatened to move auto factories to union-hostile states). He hammered Clinton for her real ties to banks like Goldman, Sachs, in the same way he’d hammered Bush for his real ties to corporate donors.
It all worked. Were there other factors? Were racism and sexism huge themes that Trump exploited, perhaps more than any other? Of course. But he also explicitly ran against us, the flying backroom deal that was the campaign.
He ran against the unseen policing that for generations had carefully kept the presidency between mainstream Republican and mainstream Democratic poles. Whether it was intentional or not, it was highly effective. And the horror of the genteel press corps was, for Trump’s voters, a major selling point.
The reaction by my colleagues was not to concede any of this, but to publish story after story trying to punch holes in the few true things Trump said. Progressive outlets suddenly started telling us that NAFTA wasn’t so bad. We heard that taking speech money from banks was legitimate because politicians are people too and need to make money. Moreover the same warnings we’d heard from people like Carville four years before about “complacency” were now absent. Carville himself came out in September 2016 and declared the race all but over, saying Republicans “continue to make a bad bet” on “non-college whites.” This was the same political consultant who’d put Bill Clinton in the White House targeting… non-college whites.
In the summer of 2016, I lost my nerve. I let pollsters talk me into the impossibility of a Trump win. Like a lot of journalists, I started ignoring what I was seeing at rallies. Once Trump was President, I realized that I’d fallen for the con in my own business, which preached that all races are exciting and close – unless one of the candidates is somehow politically unacceptable.
I thought the failure of the press in 2016 would lead to a prolonged period of introspection and re-evaluation. Instead, we created an environment in which reporters are more committed than ever to the elite policing behaviors that won us Trump in the first place. To me the 2016 campaign was just a particularly dramatic demonstration of the “siloing” phenomenon, in which media content – not just news, but all content, entertainment included – is tailored for the consumption of highly individualized demographics.
The same news that for decades hadn’t shown poverty on TV unless it was shirtless and being subdued by cops had discovered the ultimate cash cow in Trump, a billionaire who turned the presidential election into a pro wrestling-style ratings magnet. When it got caught clucking over how rich Trump was making them, big media was faced with a choice: cover him less, or find a way to justify covering him more.
We chose door number two. The rhetorical trick we employed was an openly adversarial stance, supposedly a bold new step. The papers will tell you this was an ethical/political choice. Perhaps it was, in some cases. But as much as anything else, it was a business decision. Most outlets, whether they admitted it or not, basically chose to double down with half the news audience, rather than concede all of it.
Trump won because the media can’t resist a hot-selling story. When this quirk turned out to have disastrous consequences, we invented a new approach to selling Trump that just seemed less irresponsible. In this new environment there would only be two acceptable takes in the press: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. Both takes would sell extremely well, in respective venues. But this formalized our descent into a sportslike coverage paradigm, which had been building for decades.
Two data points stood out after 2016. One involved those polls that showed confidence in the media dipping to all-time lows. The other involved unprecedented ratings. People believed us less, but watched us more.
We are now eating into the profits of the entertainment business. Completing a decades-long slide, the news has become a show, and not just in campaign years, but always.
What went wrong? When did this start?