Defending (Gasp) the Media in the Rise of Donald Trump

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21:  Presidential Candidate Donald Trump attends NBC's 'Today' Trump Town Hall at Rockefeller Plaza on A
NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21: Presidential Candidate Donald Trump attends NBC's 'Today' Trump Town Hall at Rockefeller Plaza on April 21, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

I'm about to shock you, so be prepared.

I'm going to defend a more-hated entity than Congress. I'm going to defend the media, the universally agreed-upon Dr. Frankenstein in the creation of Donald Trump.

For the record, I can't stand Trump. He's a horrible, racist, buffoon. And he certainly manipulated the media into giving him an extraordinary amount of free coverage. With his outrageous drivel, he "created" news that spawned reactions that became news that got more coverage. The coverage fed attendance at rallies that then became news because they were big and ugly and sometimes violent. And then people started voting for him and the degree of coverage became somewhat more legitimate, until our present sorry state of affairs. He is now the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for the president of the United States. All coverage of him has now become arguably justified.

So how did we get from there to here? I'm going to use MSNBC as the primary example of over-coverage of Trump, because a) I watch it more than any other news channel; b) as the most progressively-oriented network, it has raised some of the most ire from liberals, i.e. they should have known better. The two Chris's, Rachel, Lawrence, in fact, did know better. But they were never deciding how much coverage Donald Trump got on their shows.

Like it or not, the vast majority of the media is a profit-making business like any other. They charge advertisers for commercials, and the higher their ratings, the more they can charge. MacNeil-Lehrer or Amy Goodman offered us far more measured coverage of Trump because they are non-profit, non-ratings-driven. Their producers and anchors are able to make reasoned decisions about what to cover.

Phil Griffin over at MSNBC has no such luxury. He was hired to get ratings up, and that's what he's doing. There have been some lamentable casualties on the way -- Melissa-Harris Perry being the most prominent. But the real villain is not Mr. Griffin, or his NBC/Universal overlords, but the fact that we are a capitalist society in which the profit motive exists in industries where it shouldn't. Healthcare is the most glaring example, but newsgathering is a close second. The Edward R. Murrow model of objective, sober reporting that reigned for many years in T.V. news is gone and not coming back. But in many ways, the Cronkite culture was itself an aberration. Before TV ratings, we had newspaper circulation; before Rupert Murdoch, William Randolph Hearst. The "corporate media" is nothing new in American history.

So put yourself in the shoes of any one of the decision-makers who told Chuck Todd or Wolf Blitzer to give the entire A-block over to Donald Trump chewing the scenery. Would you have seen your viewers flock over to watch Gwen Ifill's far more sober five minutes on PBS? Instead you saw your ratings go up. In fact, everybody's ratings went up. You also knew if your network's ratings went down with any consistency, you would be bound to lose your job. What exactly would you have done in their position?

Personally, I zipped through much of Donald Trump with the DVR, but even so, I began to perceive some of the saturation coverage differently over time. I noticed almost all of the much-vilified punditocracy had virtually the same reaction as most of us did to Trump -- this guy can't possibly go anywhere because he just called Mexicans rapists, insulted John McCain's war record, blamed Megyn Kelly's questions on menstruation, etc. What news producer can be blamed for thinking the best way to defeat Donald Trump was to let him keep talking? Every week, we all seemed to think, "Oh well, he's done it now. He's insulted one constituency too many. He's mocked a person with disabilities.'" What other politician could have ever survived that? (Rick Perry couldn't even survive forgetting one cabinet agency four years ago.)

I kept waiting for reporters to refuse to cover Trump when he threatened their physical safety at rallies, but everyone of them wanted to be holding the mic when the Gaffer-in-Chief finally uttered the historic remark that would forever be looked back upon as "when 'The Donald' went too far." That there was never a "too far" was so hard to imagine because it required understanding that his supporters were attracted to precisely the same incoherent obnoxiousness that repelled the rest of us. It required accepting how much more racist and xenophobic Americans are than even the most jaded among us thought.

Fortunately, more people react to Donald Trump the same way you or I do; his unfavorables are sky-high. To boot, all of that wall-to-wall coverage has provided fodder for scores of potent attack ads that never will even have to draw on the same material more than once. The brain-dead blather that fueled his rise will fuel his fall. The decision to "keep the cameras rolling" might be precisely what saves us from a President Trump. To the degree that the very same coverage was responsible for him becoming a juggernaut in the first place, it might have ironically also saved us a GOP candidate who could have beaten a Democrat in the fall.

Does this mean I think the media should be let off the hook in its dance with the devil? Hell, no. Infotainment journalism is bad journalism, period, and it's a serious problem. But if we're going to be fair about affixing blame, we'd need to include ourselves.

Nobody forced us to watch.