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When the other signature Donald Trump issues — Mexican walls, Obamacare, trade deals — shortly become mired in legislative and fiscal reality, and when Hillary Clinton is locked up and forgotten in Chappaqua, Trump still will have the media to kick around. Of all his issues, the media and its near-feral opposition to Trump may be the most enduring, evocative and, for him and his supporters, the most entertaining one. His sweetest victory, accomplished through derision, mockery and artful baiting of the media — a strategy that, as a delicious byproduct, yields even more coverage by it — may be over the media itself.
Little has been as bewildering and painful to journalists as Trump’s attack on them. The sense of horror and foreboding that this will continue into 2017 and beyond is existential.
For the media, this is an attack foremost on its rights and prerogatives. For Trump, it is an attack foremost on the media’s sensibility and culture. The more Trump makes the media his punching bag, the more it reacts with a singular voice against him — the more the Trump point, that the media represents the world opposed to him and his supporters, is proved. Hence, the more Trump continues to dump on the media.
It is an ongoing debate about how much self-awareness and calculation there is on the Trump side, leaving underreported how little self-awareness there is on the media side.
At the recent annual dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists, already a high moment of self-congratulations for the journalism establishment, the evening’s host, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, reframed the CPJ’s mission from aiding journalists in extremis abroad to defending them in the U.S. itself. (The New Yorker is, among many other publications, eagerly repositioning itself as a leader of the moral opposition to the Trump age.) The evening’s main honoree, CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, called the black-tie gathering at the Waldorf Astoria to the barricades.
The not-so-subtle shift of media purpose has been from reporting to resistance — or of reporting about the Trump apocalypse in place of the Trump administration. Brian Stelter, the young host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, now each Sunday turns to the camera to deliver a personal homily: grim, appalled, censorious — accompanied with dramatic facial expressions — about the week’s most egregious anti-media Trumpisms.
Trump, on his part, seems to do everything imaginable to stir the sense of outrage that most compels the attention of the shocked-shocked media (as opposed to what, at the start of a new administration, usually is a starstruck media). “Mr. Trump’s focus appeared to careen unpredictably from hour to hour,” declared The New York Times on Nov. 30 as he logged memorable media moment after memorable media moment: a tweet against flag burning; a dinner at a New York restaurant with Mitt Romney; a triumphant turn at the Carrier plant in Indiana; a series of chatty conversations with otherwise uptight world leaders. Meanwhile, an agape media, full of umbrage, disbelief and panic, has elevated his cabinet picks to daily drama and turned Trump’s business affairs into an impeachable offense weeks before he is even to take office.
This is part of the sudden new journalism credo about not “normalizing” the 45th president (a concept originated by pro-Palestinian groups trying to restrict or ban any “normal” activities — including kids soccer games — between Israelis and Palestinians). In other words, Trump, despite the paradox of his election, ought to be considered a rogue occupant of the White House. And, too, that the media should not commence ordinary relations with him. Journalists who were seen to have some relationship with the incoming White House — former CNN host Piers Morgan, with whom Trump logged a personal call, or MSNBC morning host Mika Brzezinski, who showed up for a meeting at Trump Tower — suddenly were social media pariahs.
Quite a direct consequence of the media’s declaration that nothing is normal is, in addition to making every Trump gesture a media kerfuffle, to elevate everything to the exceptional — precisely, one might assume, the “look at me” status Trump seeks.
If part of the Trump goal is to shift the narrative of modern American life from urban-global-multicultural to middle-American-nationalist-populist, then going after the media, the chief representative of the former, is bound to solidify his standing with the latter. The widely disdained media is the better, more inclusive enemy in the cultural wars — much better to rally around these days than gays and abortions.
It is, as well, easy — diabolically easy — to pit the media against itself. After Trump met in an off-the-record session with a group of media executives and prominent on-air personalities, The New York Post, in what was widely regarded as a Trump leak, reported that he had delivered a blistering tongue-lashing to these media heavies. But the heavies themselves reported, somewhat sheepishly, quite a charm offensive, with one figure of renowned earnestness saying to friends that if he had known this was what Trump was actually like, he might really have voted for him.
The likely method and strategy of the new administration will be to play the media this way: reveling in and courting its umbrage and attention.
The fight within the media — among its left wing and ever-growing millennial and social media factions, proponents of its commercial interests (Trump sells), managers of its strategic role (there is always media business to be done in Washington) and advocates of its traditional dispassionate role — likely means that its coverage will in fact never be normalized but stuck in confusion, uncertainty and disbelief.
Raising the stakes of business and cultural confusion, many are anticipating that the Trump inaugural will be one of the biggest global audiences ever assembled.
Trump, of course, comes not out of politics but out of media —more than 30 years of playing it. No reason for him to stop now.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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