They Haven’t Learned

The media showered Donald Trump with unnecessary attention all last week in honor of his re-election rally kickoff in Orlando, Florida. The coverage was so reminiscent of 2016, that it raises fresh concerns about whether the news media has learned anything from previous campaign about covering a whiny bully like Trump. Will journalists still view him through the lens of celebrity and hold him to almost no substantive standards, while echoing his lies and bogus attacks on his enemies?

Coming off the monumental failure of 2016, the press seems poised to stumble through another campaign to failure. Especially since, following the 2016 debacle, many in the press refused to concede that any mistakes had been made, let alone offer up much serious self-reflection.

It’s likely the White House loved how rally week played out, with an avalanche of coverage that mostly regurgitated Trump’s stale, familiar rally speech, which leans heavily on victimhood. One of the media themes regarding Trump’s event was that, with his endless attacks on Hillary Clinton, he’s stuck in the past.

But the same point can be made about the press, which seems determined to hit rewind for 2020. And that means a return of the circus-like, spectacle-type campaign coverage Lord Dampnut loves.

Last week the press sent some 500 journalists to Orlando for the indoor event. But what exactly was the point of the endless media attention, considering that Trump has held more than 50 rallies since taking office?

Trump talking = news is a ridiculous formula for newsrooms to be using in 2019. Yet last week, ABC News adopted the premise, when the network aired an hour-long prime-time special of, well, Trump talking. There was no news hook for the unusual programming event, which featured ABC’s George Stephanopoulos shadowing Trump over the course of two days and recording Trump lying relentlessly. Not surprisingly, it was a ratings flop.

Still, the press seems committed to the idea that every Trump utterance is wildly important and newsworthy. Here’s how The New York Times reported Trump’s rally:

“President Trump delivered a fierce denunciation of the news media, the political establishment and what he called his radical opponents on Tuesday as he opened his re-election campaign in front of a huge crowd of raucous supporters by evoking the dark messaging and personal grievances that animated his 2016 victory.”

Subtract the phrase “opened his re-election campaign,” and that paragraph could have easily been published during any month in the last four years. We’ve seen this Trump show over and over and over, to the point where it’s quite obviously not news. Weirdly enough, the Times acknowledged that fact in its report, “in the end, it was not so different from the dozens of rallies he has held during the past two years” yet they still treated the rally as front-page news.

In fact, lots of other journalists commented on the ho-hum nature of the event. CNN’s Betsy Klein wrote on Twitter, “I was promised new material.” The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty added, “When Hillary Clinton runs in 2020, Trump is totally ready for her.”

In others words, Trump hyped up the rally as a huge event. The press played along and treated it that way, even though reporters in real time conceded the rally was something of a big fat nothingburger. Guess who walks away the winner in that scenario. To its credit, MSNBC did not carry Trump’s rally live Tuesday night, while CNN broke away after five minutes (although they did show his empty podium for a while). Naturally, Fox News aired the event in its entirety.

And yes, the rally coverage featured the hallmark media whitewashing that so often protects Trump supporters from the harsh glare of reality. Trump was met in Orlando by “cheering and chanting supporters,” reported USA Today, and by “thousands of adoring supporters,” according to Politico.

Both of those cheerful descriptions remind me of the bland, innocuous ways his supporters were often described in 2016. What has traditionally been missing from the nonstop deluge of Trump voter stories? A look into the dark nature of Trump Nation, and an open acknowledgment that his base is often fueled by racism.

Trump’s candidacy was driven by immigrant-bashing, and so too has his presidency. But when journalists profile his faithful supporters, acknowledgment of Trump’s racist rhetoric rarely comes up. The problem with that type of whitewashing is that the Orlando rally attracted throngs of white nationalists, who clearly have become part of the Trump’s political coalition, and whose presence was not mentioned in most press reports. The whole fascist vibe of the rallies is badly underplayed by the press.

Trump spouting off doesn’t qualify as news. But will the press acknowledge that before 2020?

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