In the climactic scene of the 1983 movie Wargames, a computer runs a myriad of nuclear war simulations, trying to determine whether there is a way to “win” such a fight. After exhausting all of the options (each of which resulted in total annihilation), the computer realizes “the only way to win is to not play.”
I thought about that scene when Donald Trump went to Pennsylvania last night to rally support for a local candidate for Congress. “The media,” and by that I mean cable news, major newspapers, and online news outlets, are constantly gnashing their teeth over the Trump presidency and how to cover it properly, so here was a real-time opportunity to test whether they had learned anything from 2016, when, to take one oft-cited example, CNN cut to an empty podium where Trump was scheduled to speak hours later, and deemed it “breaking news.”
Would restraint be shown because Trump was going to campaign for a Republican candidate for Congress three days before election day and giving him airtime might put the Democratic candidate at an extreme disadvantage? Would anyone bother to wait until if/when Trump said something truly newsworthy before airing his remarks? Of course not. His remarks were carried live on cable news and his speech was then sliced into clips and disseminated far and wide, grist for hours of TV show coverage and print media reporting.
Did he say anything newsworthy? Hardly. He called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” for the millionth time, bragged about the stock market, and hang on to your hats folks, told the audience what his 2020 reelection slogan would be. WOW.
But Trump and the media are in a co-dependent relationship. Indeed, if you have the temerity to question whether it is appropriate or warranted to cover a Trump speech that is larded with insults, inaccuracies, and flat out lies, none other than the New York Times chief political reporter, Maggie Haberman will hop into your Twitter timeline to reprimand you.
This is all of a piece with a narrative that reporters who cover politics have settled on - Trump runs a “reality show” presidency with the attendant plot twists, character arcs, blurring of fact and fiction, and cliffhangers that genre of entertainment is known for. Reporters, instead of focusing on what Trump does, not what he says, have played into this by covering Trump and his presidency like gossip columnists, not reporters. This should not be surprising - studies of the 2016 election showed little appetite for policy discussions and that tradition has carried on today. Consider the hand waving that occurred as Republicans saddled us with trillions in new debt while an entire day of media coverage was dominated by a fake “meltdown” by Sam Nunberg or Hope Hicks’s resignation as White House Communications Director.
Like the computer in Wargames, the only way to “win” this game is not to play it. Media outlets can monitor what Trump says at a rally and dip into his remarks if he says anything newsworthy, but simply putting him on air so he can spread his own message without fact checking or question is acting as his propagandists, not his interlocutors. If the media continues to cover him the way they did last night’s rally, we as consumers have to change the channel, not click on the articles, or read the tweets. Ultimately, the only way a reality show gets canceled is when ratings go down. So too here.
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