With Trump, Media Laughs Its Way to the Bank
Trump's rise may not be good for America, but it's certainly good for the television networks.
It is difficult to pick just one low point from 2016 (there have been so many, and we’re not even halfway through!) but when it comes to the media, we may have hit rock bottom this week. I’m referring, of course, to the moment a reporter at a press conference asked Donald J. Trump — a reality-TV star who is, I might remind you, the real-life presumptive Republican nominee for president — about a once-obscure, now frantically beloved zoo-dwelling gorilla. The ape was shot and passed into the great animal kingdom in the sky Saturday after a little boy fell into his 15-foot-deep gorilla moat, resulting in media hyperventilation and approximately 17,000 tortured gorilla think pieces.
Behold, here is what Trump said: “It was amazing because there were moments with the gorilla — the way he held that child, it was almost like a mother holding a baby. Looked so beautiful and calm.” (Note: It wasn’t. Also, it didn’t.)
But, continued Trump, suddenly a somber, soulful wild animal expert, “there were moments where it looked pretty dangerous. I don’t think they had a choice. It’s too bad there wasn’t another way. But I thought it was so beautiful to watch that powerful, you know, almost 500-pound gorilla, the way he dealt with that little boy.” (The little boy got a concussion from the gorilla’s decision to drag him around ye olde gorilla pit, but it’s Trump’s America now, and this column refuses to be Tortured Gorilla Think Piece No. 17,001, so let’s roll on.)
At the same press conference, Trump briefly took questions about his questionable fundraising for veterans — some checks apparently didn’t roll out until the day it was reported they hadn’t been written — but he responded with brutal attacks on the media instead. Trump called one reporter a “sleaze”; he went on to label the political press “the most dishonest people I know.”
Whoosh! Ka-ching! Gone was the veteran narrative, whisked into the wind. The new story: “Trump vs. Media.” Rush Limbaugh ate it up like a plate of cigarette-stained pancakes, calling it “the press conference Republican voters have wanted to see for years.” The “mainstream” media ran with it too, because who doesn’t love a story featuring oneself? It was, in short, a brilliant move by Trump. He is the king of distracting shiny objects; the emperor of flimflam; the constant star of his own 1980s-style soap opera. The media, meanwhile, dutifully follows along.
And so we witness Trump dropping random Vince Foster references here and there, flushing out frantic news cycle rabbits, and then we watch him deny he ever did so in the first place. We grudgingly follow the Megyn Kelly/Donald Trump “feud,” then their famous reconciliation interview, and now, new hints of future discord. We watch Trump fire off tweets about Trump Tower taco bowls on Cinco de Mayo — “I love Hispanics!” — and then, as an added bonus, read all about it the next day.
Compare this to dour Hillary Clinton, who sometimes appears to be actively trying to lose this election, complaining to the New York Times that people won’t vote for her because she’s a woman. (No, really — she did that this week.) One gets the sense that Clinton is a proverbial deer caught in Trump’s headlights, slightly exhausted and unsure whether it’s even realistic to dart away.
“It is hard not to feel that Trump understands himself, and that we’re all in on this kind of spectacular joke,” Michael Wolff writes in the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, in which he interviews — you guessed it — Donald Trump.
We may all be in on it, but that doesn’t mean the joke can’t still be on us. In February, Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, famously noted that Trump’s rise “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” No kidding. In his interview with Wolff, Trump goes out of his way to praise various media bigwigs, including Moonves — “Great guy. The greatest. We’re on the same page. We think alike” — Rupert Murdoch, and Sumner Redstone. “He may know few people in Washington,” Wolff writes, “and care about them less, but he knows his moguls and where they rank on the modern suck-up-to list.”
Trump knows, in other words, how modern America works. And unless we see a rash of significant events in the next five months — those bigger, more momentous happenings of history — prepare for weeks upon weeks of shenanigans, ridiculousness, free-floating shiny objects, wild distractions, and general media tomfoolery.
With this in mind, there is a real case to be made for a national tuning out of sorts; for rebelling against the crazed cycle that feeds both the media and our questionable candidates. The tune-out needn’t be complete; you don’t have to pull a full Greta Garbo, or even a Timothy Leary, who might have changed his “tune in” line had he been forced to watch today’s cable news. But perhaps a recognition that we’re all part of a larger game is in order — and, with that recognition, an understanding that we don’t have to feed the more egregious participants in said game with our views, listens, or clicks.
Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work can be found at http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.
This article originally appeared at RealClear Politics June 2, 2016 and is reprinted with permission.