For some reason there's been a rather fierce debate raging the past few days on the question of whether the media bears some or even all responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump. This isn't a surprise when you consider two things about the press. The first is that it loves talking about itself in general; the second is that there's a stage in the progression of any story that's either covered to death or not covered enough where the outlets involved begin the process of handwringing and soul-searching over what they did or didn't do and what could have been done better. With Donald Trump now steamrolling his way toward the Republican nomination, with only a possible establishment coup standing between him and his prize, now is as good a time as any for the media to begin that introspection.
Donald Trump is a media figure. More than anything else he's accomplished -- and accomplished may be too charitable a word -- he's someone who's famous for his famous name and for his ability to continue keeping it famous by providing outrageous catnip for lazy media organizations. Trump hasn't built or produced anything in years, if he ever did. His value for a good portion of his time in the spotlight has been almost entirely based on his brand, and that brand is Trump himself: the pompous manchild and petulant schoolyard bully who sells himself as being the paragon of success and tough-talking business savvy. Sure, everybody genuinely hates him -- as evidenced by a Comedy Central roast of him a few years back that wasn't tinged with even a hint of latent affection -- but who cares because those people are probably jealous losers. Trump's a billionaire. He's in charge. He's a master negotiator. A winner.
On Friday night, Bill Maher castigated Chuck Todd for a truly idiotic comment he made on his daily bastardized Meet the Press show on MSNBC last week. Todd was talking about the Trump/Cruz war over whose wife is more attractive and asked, genuinely shocked and without a hint of irony, "How did we devolve to this?" Maher stopped the clip right there and lit Todd up. "Yeah, how? Who's talking about this? I don't know how this happened!" he said, then calling out "a completely lack of self-awareness on the part of the press that they are the problem." That criticism was followed by an op-ed in The New York Times that saw Nicholas Kristof lamenting his "shared shame" at being a part of the very engine that's propped up Trump for months during his improbable presidential campaign and for years before that.
The pushback against these views came on Sunday at Gawker, where Brendan O'Connor insisted that given that Trump's unfavorability rating was so extraordinarily high nationally, the media don't deserve blame for his rise but credit for shining a very bright light on his unfitness for the office of president. O'Connor says there is no "media" as a monolith -- which admittedly is exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from an outlet like Gawker, one which prides itself on standing outside and taking shots at those inside -- and that the only thing "empowering" Trump is the right's own racism and bigotry. He's a monster created by them and them alone and the media didn't have anything to do with it other than to report what they saw.
That O'Connor point is a good one: in the end and over time it was the Republican party and overall conservative movement itself that spawned Trump. But make no mistake: the media -- the establishment media anyway -- elevated him. Cable and broadcast news outlets in particular gave him an unrestricted platform from which to campaign nationally -- when added up, so far Trump has reportedly received two billion in free press from news media -- and even their toughest journalists have largely given Trump a walk on his most outlandish claims. Granted, Trump is so audacious a liar that his lack of shame acts as a kind of rhetorical malware introduced into the journalistic system. He stymies reporters by utterly gaslighting them, insisting he's right even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. How do you defend against that?
Well, as I've said before, one way would be to realize that objectivity can still be maintained -- and in fact is maintained -- by refusing to give an inch with Trump. When he says something that's patently false, start at "you're either lying or you're completely uninformed" and work your way back. When he makes a claim like the one he made about the supposed parties New Jersey Muslims were having on 9/11, know that he's claiming he saw them precisely because it's impossible to prove a negative. Trump figures you can't argue with him if he says he personally remembers seeing something because that's so subjective, but you can -- and you should. Again, the correct answer is, "That's wrong. Period. So you're either lying or you don't know what you're talking about." Don't equivocate and don't let him purposely run you around in circles for his own amusement. Hit him back. That is, objectively, the right thing to do because you're dealing in fact and he isn't.
But beyond that there's the matter of all that free PR. Trump knows that his outrageous comments and the violence he encourages at his rallies can't be overlooked by the press -- which is part of the reason he continues to engage in such behavior. Cable networks have taken to carrying Trump rallies live because they're like NASCAR races: you never know when there's going to be a crash. Networks and news outlets allow their own people to be put in harm's way by Trump's superheated rhetoric aimed at turning his crazed yokel base against the media covering these events. While news needs to be covered and Trump is indeed a story, that level of coverage is completely unnecessary. The press is being played by Trump and it has yet to come around to that or shift the balance of power. Such a thing shouldn't be necessary, of course, but Trump isn't a normal candidate and he's certainly made it so.
Back in February, CBS chief Les Moonves, one of the most powerful people in media, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter and said of the Trump era, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." While you have to admire his honesty, it doesn't make the sentiment any less despicable. CBS and every other network may consider ratings their bottom line, but there's so much at stake here that to behave in a responsible manner would literally have the potential to change the course of the country for the better. As Brendan O'Connor says, Trump's so disliked by most voters that maybe he's not a true threat, but that doesn't excuse media outlets jumping on his bandwagon in the name of reaping the financial reward of the eyeballs he brings their way.
It's a good thing that two-thirds of the American voters don't like Trump, but even the other third might have a different opinion if the media didn't already make Trump look like a "winner" -- like he can spit in the face of the media and they'll still come whenever he calls and he can tell lie after lie and rarely face a powerful dressing down for it. Trump has worked the media for decades and it's because of that that he's in the position he is now. It should've stopped a long time ago. It would have if the media hadn't been so starstruck years ago and weren't so horrifyingly titillated now.