Media critics and the objects of their criticism have spent the last few weeks bickering over such issues as false equivalency, how the expectations of the race have ended up getting exceptionally bent out of whack, and who, ultimately, takes the blame for the way GOP presidential nominee and enraged eczema blister Donald Trump has been covered.
It’s a fun fight for navel-gazers to have as our country’s democratic norms slowly erode, but I’d like to interject with a brief verdict: No matter what we have to say about the media’s role in enlarging Trump’s persona, I think we can all agree that the cable news networks are the worst.
On Friday morning, Trump was expected to give a press conference ― make a note of that: a press conference! ― on the topic of birtherism. It’s a rich field for Trump, given that he is the universe’s most high-profile promoter of the thoroughly lunatic idea that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The night before the press conference, Trump began building excitement by suggesting that he had somehow moved on from birtherism.
The morning of the big event, Trump had the opportunity to put the matter to rest. Rather than doing so, he told Fox Business’ Maria Bartiromo:
You watch my statement. We have to keep the suspense going. You, my friend, watch the statement. I think you’ll be happy.
“Ah ha ha ha ha!” replied a giddy Bartiromo, because this is all such fun! There’s nothing at stake at all!
From the outset, this press conference ― which was held at Trump’s latest real estate venture, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. ― was presented to the media in the same way a pet owner might tease his tabby with a pinch of catnip. But it was also something that should have been approached with suspicion, because it was very clear going in that this heralded Trump backtrack was actually based on a different lie: that Hillary Clinton had come up with the birtherism theory, and that Trump had debunked it.
There was good cause to be on edge.
Naturally, cable news channels and their cameras joined the traveling press pool assembled at Trump’s hotel. Their broadcast didn’t get off to a great start: It began with a static shot of an empty lectern, which seemed to go on forever as Trump was ― probably strategically ― late in arriving.
And even as the cable news chyrons continued to promote the idea that we were about to see a “major announcement about birtherism,” Trump began his press conference with a lengthy monologue about his hotel. It was right about here that people in attendance instantly recognized that a scam was being perpetrated. Yet the silent, unthinking eye of the cable news cameras stayed open.
For the first few minutes, this press conference felt more like an infomercial for Trump’s new property. From there, he began beckoning the assembled to take in the other people in the room ― a ragtag assemblage of Medal of Honor winners and at least one Gold Star mother who had not been alienated by Trump’s vicious attacks on one of her fellows.
Now, it’s not strange for politicians to acknowledge supporters from the dais. This has become a fairly standard preamble for politicians making public appearances. But what happened next was highly unusual: Trump abruptly stopped talking.
At this point, it started to become clear that what was happening was not a press conference. Rather, it was a campaign event. Trump yielded the stage to the other men standing with him, and these heretofore unknown endorsers began 20-some minutes of straight surrogacy. It went on and on, interminably. At one point, a man was simply reciting the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. Where was the birtherism event?
On the ground, some began to make the correct editorial judgments.
Others wondered if the cable news channels were dumb enough to still be covering this.
To answer the question: Yes, the cable news networks broadcast every blessed minute of this straight-up nonsense, long after it became obvious to everyone ― including, in many instances, their own field reporters ― that they had been rooked.
It was astonishing on a number of levels. Let’s begin with the fact that you’d be hard-pressed to find any example of a cable news network permitting 25 minutes of uninterrupted testimonials from random people supporting Hillary Clinton.
More to the point, however, is that every cable news channel had promised its viewers that its would show Trump’s remarks on birtherism. Even when it became clear that this promise would be a long time coming, the cable channels aimed their cameras at an event that wasn’t implicitly part of the deal.
How is it that they couldn’t do the exact same thing as the journalist described above, and cut away? Were they really worried about missing Trump’s statement? Here’s a fun thing about television cameras: While they can broadcast live, they can also be used to record events. It’s pretty neat. Another cool innovation is that once you’ve recorded footage, you can edit it. It’s a great way to separate substantive news from dross. So there are options.
In the end, Trump only spent about 30 seconds on the birther issue, and it went the way many suspected from the outset: “Hillary Clinton started the birther controversy in 2008. I finished it. Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.” Save for the “Barack Obama was born in the United States” part, everything else was a ridiculous lie.
From there, Trump invited those in the traveling pool with cameras to take a tour of the hotel.
Why was any of this broadcast? What is it about the intellectual deficiencies of cable news producers that they didn’t realize, as their peers did, that the entire event was a sham? What is it about the psychological hangups of cable news anchors that prevents them from saying, “This is nonsense, let’s point the camera at me”? Do they not think of themselves highly enough?
Trump’s entire candidacy has been strange and stupid. Lots of people in the media have been flummoxed by it. I certainly have. But it’s getting pretty late in the day to get tricked like this ― to know you’re getting tricked like this ― and still stand passively by as if some unseen force is compelling you to leave your camera trained at your own befuddlement.
The promise of cable television news is that it offers the possibility of the instantaneous on demand ― 24 hours of fleet-footed coverage that can move from place to place, story to story, with agility. But what we saw during Trump’s so-called press conference is that for all this vaunted nimbleness, the editorial judgment of cable news producers lags well behind their counterparts outside the studio, who were quicker to realize they were being conned. And quicker to get this news out.
It seems pretty clear that Trump is aware of the fact that cable news is intellectually leadfooted, and that his own showman skills make him a maestro in this particular media arena. You can hardly blame him for pulling the sort of stunt he pulled today. He’ll probably do it again. Heck, he should do it again.
Afterwards, there was an effort undertaken to sort of make up for this ridiculous failure.
And even some brief glimmers of self-awareness:
Whoa, if true, there, cable ace.
Trump has said he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and [not] lose any voters.” Similarly, I believe that I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody without ever peeling a single cable news camera away from the sight of Trump’s empty lectern.
FFS, do better, you idiots.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.