Political commentators tend to ascribe almost supernatural political powers to President Donald Trump, but what few in the media or the political ecosystem realize or are willing to acknowledge is this: he is a creature of the media and without the daily oxygen and ego gratification it gives him, he would wither and fade away.
The best solution to Trump’s xenophobic appeal and the pernicious influence it’s had on our political system is for the media to merely ignore the ex-president after he hops on that helicopter in front of the White House next January 20.
I’ve been watching the Trump-Media tragicomedy since the mid-1980s.
As an avaricious and amoral developer looking to conquer Manhattan in the “Greed Decade” Trump masterfully played the reporters and editors at the New York tabloids, so that he became front page fodder for all things Trump. The screaming front pages of the Post and News almost four decades ago included, “Ivana to Donald at secret sitdown: Gimme the Plaza!” and “Marla boasts to her pals about Donald: ‘Best Sex I Ever Had.’” He also dipped his toe in local politics, whipping up hysteria by calling for the execution of the later-exonerated “Central Park Five.”
As the myth and mystery of Trump – supposedly savvy and super-rich businessman, and Lothario – grew, the tabloid newspapers profited from generating cheap, eyeball-grabbing headlines about him. Back in the 1980s, more than 2 million New Yorkers relied on these publications for their daily news diet. Instead, they often got outrageous fabrications and exaggerations from Trump-land.
While his fortunes sagged and he went bankrupt in Atlantic City, the headlines kept coming.
When he was thwarted in erecting the huge apartment complex on the Hudson River,the tabloids breathlessly covered his battles with local elected leaders like then-state Assembly Member Jerry Nadler.
When his messy divorce played out on the Aspen ski slopes, the gossip pages swooned.
I had a front-row seat to witness Trump’s slippery ways with the media. In the early 1990s, I was publisher of a community weekly on the West Side of Manhattan, the neighborhood where Trump was attempting to get political approval for his controversial massive waterfront development. The chairman of the company I worked for had a social relationship with Trump, and one day he called me saying that the mega-developer wanted to meet with me.
In his garish office overlooking Fifth Avenue a few days later, Trump looked at me and asked with an impish smile: “Do you ever put your editorials on the front page of your newspaper?”
I paused for a second, considering this odd question. “We do that very rarely, only when we are endorsing elected leaders in local elections,” I answered.
“Well, I was thinking of spending $25,000 on back page ads in your newspaper,” Trump replied. “It would be great if you could support my project with a front page editorial.”
I listened patiently and said that we’d certainly appreciate his business: $25,000 for three months of back pages would’ve made a big difference to my small business. But I insisted that I couldn’t commit to his editorial request. The meeting ended shortly thereafter.
As I walked out with a colleague, our general counsel, I turned to him and said: “That was a bribe, wasn’t it?”
He looked at me and smiled and merely nodded his head in agreement. Trump did not buy the ads because I wouldn’t play ball. That was the end of that bizarre tale.It became a fun story to tell close friends, but I didn’t think much of it until 2015, when I watched Trump descend on the escalator at Trump Tower and embark on his then-seemingly quixotic run for president.
My experience was a microcosm of Trump’s view of the press. We exist as a large megaphone to feed his ego and help him make money through whatever means necessary. I’m glad I never fell into his trap.
But almost everyone in the national media has fallen into his clutches for the past six years. The New York Times and Washington Post, who have both done some excellent reporting on the Trump administration’s failures and ethical lapses, have seen their paid digital subscriptions soar to the stratosphere. MSNBC, CNN and other news networks have also profited considerably with their wall-to-wall Trump coverage.
But now, thankfully, this surreal and scary chapter in American history is about to come to a close. In 40 or so days, the cameras and news columns of our top media organizations will focus on President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, their new team in the White House, the enormous task of getting past a global pandemic and the economic road back from the brink once again at the end of yet another catastrophic GOP presidential administration.
And yet, I am concerned. I read recently that The New York Times’ intrepid White House correspondent Maggie Haberman will remain on the “Trump beat,” whatever that means.
There are rumblings that Trump will announce his candidacy for 2024 on the day of Biden’s inauguration. There will be the inevitable fallout of whatever chaos Trump commits in the waning days of his reign of error.
With all this, I have a modest proposal for my esteemed media executives, editors and reporters: Just ignore him.
Trump will be an ex-president with no power beyond the misinformation he produces on Twitter. How much has the media covered George W. Bush the last decade? Besides his good deeds and the occasional health crisis, we haven’t seen much written about Jimmy Carter. Until he re-emerged the past few months to campaign for Biden, even Barack Obama – once derided by detractors as a “celebrity” – lived a relatively quiet life out of the limelight.
So let’s treat Trump just like them. If he takes on recreational portrait painting like Bush, that’s a nice feature story. If he decides to rebuild homes in impoverished neighborhoods like Carter, that probably merits a nice two minute clip on the nightly news. If he goes body surfing in Hawaii like Obama does each year, sure, cover that for a few laughs.
But for anything else, let’s break the addiction, and stop covering every outrageous statement. During his first presidential campaign, the tendency of outlets such as CNN to breathlessly cover his rambling campaign rallies as “breaking news” was a gift of free publicity. Even fact-checking or critically covering his tweets gives them more airtime than they warrant. Let’s treat him like the unimportant fool that he is, someone whose ill-informed political commentary is no more newsworthy than fellow right-wing B-listers James Woods or Scott Baio.
It may hurt the ratings in the short term, but it’ll feel so good once the hangover wears off.
With reporting by Kimberly Gonzalez