MARK KARLIN, EDITOR OF BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
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It is quite tempting to dismiss Donald Trump as a gaudy con man who is feverishly stumbling his way through the presidency. However, that would be a mistake. Trump is the sneering lion tamer of the mainstream corporate press, snapping his whip with Twitter bursts that distract from the egregious destructiveness of his administration on so many fronts.
One could argue that the mass media has continued to bring up Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, but the rollout of the so-called "Nunes memo" is an example of how Trump uses the press as his foil. The release of the GOP report that chastises the FBI for investigating former Trump adviser Carter Page has been the subject of speculation for a week. Trump has teased the press about whether he will approve of release of the document with classified information, when all the while the White House may very well have coordinated the action with Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), chair of the House Intelligence Committee. The general assumption is that the memo will discredit the FBI and the Mueller investigation of Trump.
Many of those who oppose Trump believe that he is on the ropes and desperate. However, there is another way of looking at his actions: He is masterful at redirecting the media to what he wants to focus on at any given moment -- and that often changes by the hour. Whether or not the public dissemination of the GOP House Intelligence Committee memo will tarnish the FBI enough to gain Trump support in his battle with the special prosecutor remains to be seen. However, it is another example of how Trump manipulates the media into focusing on his ongoing charges, outrageous remarks and general agenda of distraction.
After all, the daily grind of Trump administration-driven iniquities receives only spotty reporting. By throwing sensationalistic spaghetti on the wall with his tweets and statements, Trump has an intuitive sense of how to divert the mass press from the real evils of his administration, including his systematic dismantling of important regulations in all realms of government. As Kyle Pope wrote in a January 22 article in the Columbia Journalism Review:
I remain astonished by the ability of this former reality TV star to be our assignment editor. He has a preternatural ability to intuit the bumps and swerves of the news cycle, enabling him to refocus attention on himself just as it is in danger of moving on.
By focusing attention on himself, he is teasing the press into avoiding coverage of the full destructiveness of his administration. Global warming advances at an unrelenting pace, for example, but there is little coverage in the mainstream press about how the egregious actions of Trump administration agencies are exacerbating the problem in a profound way. Right-wing partisan hacks are being appointed to the federal judiciary, but there are only occasional stories -- with very, very few on television news -- about the extremism and legal inadequacies of many of these nominees, a host of them already confirmed. The mass incarceration system -- including the police -- is still destroying millions of lives, but the Trump administration is headed backward on this front, deploying a regressive, discriminatory and brutal set of policies.
These are only three examples of how the administration is enacting fundamentally harmful changes that frequently get lost in coverage, thanks to Trump's manipulation of the mass media. For all his ignorance, Trump understands that it is difficult for the press to sustain policy narratives when offered daily sensationalism from the distractor-in-chief.
This even affects covering news from abroad that concerns the US. In another article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Yardena Schwartz notes that it is becoming more difficult for US freelancers abroad to pitch and publish articles that are not Trump-related:
According to a study by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Trump was the focus of 41 percent of American news coverage in his first 100 days in office. That’s three times the amount of coverage showered on previous presidents. This laser-eyed focus on Trump has left little room for other crucial stories.
“Trump has been a ratings magnet on TV and in print,” says Rick Edmonds, the Poynter Institute’s media business analyst. “There’s a pretty clear indication that aggressive reporting on Trump is giving The New York Times, The Washington Post, and others a boost. A large portion of the population thinks he’s a maniac and wants to read about him every day. That tends to reduce attention on the rest of the world....”
“When he does touch foreign news, those stories get covered, and covered well,” says [Ben] Pauker [the former executive editor of Foreign Policy]. “The places that Trump couldn’t locate on a map are the places that are suffering.”
It is important to remember that while Trump may not be knowledgeable about domestic or foreign affairs, he is an entertainer. In an age when entertainment and news frequently merge -- and higher ratings mean increased profit for news corporations -- Trump understands that his startling pronouncements are fodder for reporters.
One should not dismiss Trump's claims about how much media outlets value his newsworthiness, as reported in the Independent in December of last year:
Mr Trump said he believes members of the news media will cover him in a more favorable light [in the 2020 election] because they are profiting from the interest in his presidency.
“Another reason that I’m going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes,” he said.
Yes, Trump is being bombastic here, but he understands the value of a brand that attracts mainstream media viewers and readers -- at the expense of extended public policy discussions and information about the issues that impact daily governance.