Among the many bitter lessons driven home by Donald Trump’s rise to power is this: the political media, for all of its hand-wringing about impartiality, is extremely susceptible to creating reality, rather than portraying it.
Donald Trump, a flaxen-haired buffoon entertainer whose primary role in American society for most of his life has been to act as human shorthand for “rich clown,” did not, prior to 2016, have a natural political constituency. He did not have any grassroots support as a political figure. He had not created, built, or even deeply engaged with any political organization. He had not risen up the ranks of a political party. He was not a leader. He did not have a base.
All he had was a megaphone. That megaphone was enthusiastically provided to him by the news media. Using only that megaphone, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination for president of the United States. He did not have the best fundraising operation. He did not have the smartest political operatives on his team. He did not have the best speechwriters, or strategists, or connections to the power structure at the local or national level. What he did have was the biggest megaphone. The biggest media platform. He was the most entertaining story. His rallies were covered live on cable news. He had limitless access to prime time TV appearances. The media handed him the keys, because he naturally provided more drama than any other candidate. His political constituency is still a work in progress. It all flowed from his media attention. Not vice versa.
All politicians try to capitalize on the media for their own ends. But never has the media played such a crucial role in creating a president from scratch. This is new. And the fact that Trump actually fucking won should make everyone in the political media—in particular, those who view their role as more or less neutral arbiters of The Story—gasp in horror at their own power. The entire non-Trump-voting nation has been doing a constant series of gut checks for the past two years. The media’s gut check is one of the most meaningful of all. This is not the old debate about whether objectivity really exists, or whether the mainstream media is biased towards liberalism or conservatism. This is about the need for the media to recognize its own effect on what it purports to be covering. Genuinely or not, news outlets have always defaulted to the explanation that they cover rather than create reality. That is no longer credible. For the slice of the press that does have a genuine desire not to be wielded as a mere political tool, it’s time to get your shit together. The next election is fast approaching.
The most straightforward reform for political media is this: do not create candidates because you need an exciting narrative. Make coverage decisions based upon whether or not someone actually has a political base, rather than on whether you can build one for them with relentless media saturation. This is a fair and nonpartisan standard. Candidates backed by both the Tea Party and by DSA are worthy of coverage to the extent that they both represent broad political movements that have or may soon have a meaningful impact on society. Politics is not sports. Nor is it reality television, the most apt and unfortunate comparison to the 2016 campaign. Politics is the process by which ideologies compete for power. Cover it as such. Look for the ideologies and the power, and you will find the news.
You know who will not be receiving saturation media coverage under this new, healthier standard? Michael fucking Avenatti. A useful yardstick for how much the media has failed to learn this vital lesson of 2016 is how much coverage Michael Avenatti is getting on cable news. Here is a man who rose to fame as a porn star’s lawyer—a man who fails the fundamental test of “having a real political base” while acing the cynical test of “being able to create ongoing drama on TV.” There is absolutely, positively no reason for credible news outlets to treat Michael Avenatti as a real presidential candidate. His entire political constituency consists of Don Lemon. He is just some guy, with a bottomless thirst for attention. And yet, here we are, watching him slowly be elevated into the ranks of presidential contenders in a way identical to that of Donald Trump. Just as Trump was before, Avenatti is a creation of the media who will use all of that (extremely valuable!) airtime as a proxy for political advertising, and vault himself into the national consciousness. It is 2018. The next presidential election is two years away. If Michael Avenatti does in fact become a viable candidate, the media has failed.
People do not “emerge” as presidential candidates. They become presidential candidates by riding a power base. In a healthy democracy, that base should be a broad coalition of concerned citizens. In America, that base is more often a mix of corporate interests and wealthy donors. It’s now abundantly clear that media is its own base, one strong enough to put one of America’s stupidest men into the White House because he got good ratings along the way. Let’s not do that again, okay?