Michael Wolff: Trump Win Exposes Media's Smug Failures
Ads don’t work, polls don’t work, celebrities don’t work, media endorsements don’t work and ground games don’t work.
The media turned itself into the opposition and, accordingly, was voted down as the new political reality emerged: Ads don’t work, polls don’t work, celebrities don’t work, media endorsements don’t work, ground games don’t work.
Not only did the media get almost everything about this presidential election wrong, but it became the central issue, or the stand-in for all those issues, that the great new American Trump Party voted against.
The transmutation of political identities has arguably devolved into two parties: the Trump one, the angry retro people, and the Media Party, representing the smug modern people, each anathema to and uncomprehending of the other. Certainly, there was no moment in the campaign where the Media Party did not see itself as a virtuous and, most often, determinative factor in the race. Given this, the chants of “CNN sucks” at Trump rallies should not have been entirely surprising.
But they were. The media took this as a comment about press freedom rather than its own failure to read the zeitgeist. In fact, it largely failed to tell any story other than its own.
New Yorker editor David Remnick, as good a representative of media virtue as anybody, before he went to bed last night took a moment to throw off a thousand words or so on the death of the republic, rather than to express much interest — awe might have been in order — at the enormity and meaning of what had happened. Truly, really, a new voice had spoken — but in a pitch so high and a language so obscure that none of us in the media picked it up.
Every anchor and commentator on network and cable news last night underwent a visible transformation from self-satisfied and jolly certainty to wandering in the wilderness. In a situation that only had two possible outcomes, nobody was even able to pretend they had contemplated both. Say this for Brian Williams’ old-fashioned anchor visage, it at least kept him from looking like an astonished fool live on MSNBC. Hang me on the same hook: I woke up this morning to a string of emails from various of the illiterate boobs who had over the past year felt compelled to tell me why they hated Hillary Clinton and about the intensity of their desire to elect Donald Trump. To each, I had said “fat chance.” Now all said, rightly, "I told you so."
It all washed away. Beyonce. The tax returns. The theoretical blue wall. Trump as sexual predator. Putin. His shambolic debate performances. Hispanics. Indeed, every aspect of the media narrative, dust. This narrative not only did not diminish him, it fortified him. The criticism of Trump defined the people who were criticizing him, reliably giving the counter-puncher something to punch. It was a juicy target. The Media Party not only fashioned the takedown narrative and demanded a special sort of allegiance to it — Twitter serving as the orthodoxy echo chamber — but, suspending most ordinary conflict rules, according to the Center for Public Integrity, gave lots of cash to Hillary. The media turned itself into the opposition and, accordingly, was voted down.
It was a failure to understand the power of the currents running for Trump — a failure of intelligence, experience and objectivity, on particularly excruciating display last night in Buzzfeed’s live video feed with its cast of moronic, what-me-worry millennials having their first go at election night and now eager to take over the media.
And it was a failure of modern journalistic technique too. It was the day the data died. All of the money poured by a financially challenged media industry into polls and polling analysis was for naught. It profoundly misinformed. It created a compelling and powerful narrative that was the opposite of what was actually happening. There may be few instances, except perhaps under authoritarian regimes, where the media has so successfully propounded a view of events not only of its own making but at such odds with reality. Trump is a simple proof: forget polls — they say what you want them to say.
And then there was the wholesale destruction of what is perhaps the most important media assumption: that advertising matters. A not inconsiderable portion of the profitability of most media companies comes from the extra many billions of dollars that’s poured into local television every four years. Clinton spent the usual quota (buying, for instance, almost 80 percent of the more than 120,000 campaigns ads during the general election in Florida), Trump only a fraction thereof, redefining not only how to run for office, but the symbiotic relationship of the media to politics.
The irony is too painful: Trump the media candidate turns on the media. The flat-footed media became for the nimble Trump his punching bag and foil (while all the time the media assumed Trump was the flat-footed one). It gave him his singular, galvanizing and personalized issue — it’s the media, stupid. If Trump makes good on his promise to oppose the Time Warner and AT&T merger, that will be an indication that his war with the media, once his most reliable alley, will go on.
Perhaps another strategy for the media future is to just create a channel that pretends that Hillary and liberal certainties have won — rather similar to the pretend and certainty that got us to where we are now.