Trumping the News Media

Gee. That was quick. Donald Trump is out before he was ever really in. And without question, Trump is a smart, talented business executive who knows how to leverage his celebrity. He also has strong views on issues that resonate with many Americans — or at least those who still answer the phone during dinner hour so they can participate in political polls.

But was Trump ever really a serious candidate for the White House?

The national news media pundits — representing traditional media, new media and everything in between — sure gave him that status, especially the TV Talking Heads on the cable networks.

Any lessons here about the state of politics — and the news media?

Here’s from the NYT, “Trump Bows Out, but Spotlight Barely Dims“:

Donald J. Trump announced on Monday that he would not seek the presidency, a development less important for the Republican field or his national political future — if he ever had one — than for what it said about a media culture that increasingly seems to give the spotlight to the loudest, most outrageous voices.

Mr. Trump spent months earnestly portraying himself as a potential nominee for a party whose coalition includes family values activists, antigambling religious leaders and deficit hawks, some of whom might just have blanched at his two divorces, casino holdings, penchant for debt financing and formerly liberal positions on some issues.

To some degree he succeeded, using a combination of attributes that made him uniquely qualified to capitalize on the times: Near-universal name recognition (enhanced by his prime-time berth on NBC as the host of “Celebrity Apprentice”), gobs of cash and two decades of experience putting his outsize personality to use in the service of headline creation, starting in the pre-Internet era with the New York City tabloids.

“The media made him, the media kept him, the media kept promoting him,” said Stuart Spencer, a former political strategist for Ronald Reagan. Speaking of the proliferation of news outlets interested in politics, Mr. Spencer, 84 and admittedly fascinated by the new landscape, lamented, “There’s no referee anymore to evaluate what are serious issues and what are serious candidates.”

And here’s E.J. Dionne writing in WaPo, “Donald Trump: I’m Fired“:

So Donald Trump fired himself. Before he even tried to get the job. And he is laughing all the way to the several score banks he must do business with — and perhaps also to higher ratings.

Who wins out of this deal? Trump. Lord knows the monetary value of all the publicity he got as the media (including, briefly, yours truly) took seriously the possibility that he would run for president. Cable television especially hung on his every outlandish charge, and turned him, briefly, into the political-analyst-in-chief.  Heck, even his fiercest critics helped him by giving him even more publicity. Trump mainly cared about whether his name was spelled right – and it is an easy name to spell.

Who has a lot to answer for? Members of the media. Why, exactly, was Trump allowed to revive the nonsensical stories about President Obama’s birth certificate? Why did so many media people fall all over themselves (okay, ourselves) to “cover” him?

There is now a strange symbiosis where self-promotion, goosing ratings, selling books, kicking off a new TV season, winning more page-views and upping speaking fees all get masked together and the resulting porridge gets labeled as “politics.” Mike Huckabee (for whom I confess to having a soft spot) and Sarah Palin (for whom I do not have a comparable soft spot) have all used the political media to enhance their market value. Now Trump – in a much shorter time — has done the same. And the Republican contest for the presidency has been reduced to one big marketing exercise.

Think of it as the privatization of American politics. Issues, schmissues. Celebrity rules.

OK. I agree with Dionne. Sarah Palin has used the political media to enhance her market value. No doubt. But I expect that if Palin decides to run in 2012, she’ll be more of a serious candidate than Trump could ever have been. Saying that, I don’t think she’ll run. She’s a celebrity now.

And “celebrity rules” — although not necessarily when voters get in the queue on election day.

By then, I hope we have candidates who are serious — and who have engaged in a serious discussion of the big issues facing this country.

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