Like any well-trained lap dog, our national political press is rallying to the unique challenge of covering an incoming American president who is a notoriously truth-averse merchant of social-media make believe by performing the one trick it knows how to do when a new master’s in the house: rolling over for a tummy rub. Yes, Mike Allen, the poster boy for the laissez-faire-mal model of Washington access journalism, took to Twitter to leak a scarifying image of the likely shape of things to come for our establishment media in the Trump age. The shot featured members of several leading news organizations, from NBC News to the New York Times, assembled, per Allen’s caption for “Christmas @ Mar-a-Lago”—Trump’s gilded Florida resort compound—where they were treated to drinks and an off-the-record confab with the president-elect, who was, Allen explained, “relaxed and chatty.”
And in that small fawning word cloud, you pretty much have the entirety of the rationale for the corrupt, empty ritual of an off-the-record presidential audience with a D.C. press corps notionally committed to holding the awesome power of the White House accountable. We’re patiently instructed, time and again, that these gatherings offer the reporters in the White House press pool an unbuttoned version of life in the Oval Office: an invaluable, quasi-vérité vantage on a chief executive’s thought processes. “With journalists, you need some insight into the president-elect’s thinking,” New York Times D.C. bureau chief Elisabeth Bumiller told Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple when asked about the paper of record’s decision to shove off to Mar-a-Lago. “We have found in the past that this has helped with Obama,” she added, almost prayerfully.
Never mind, in this case, that the world at large already has a distressing real-time window on the roiling Trump id via the man’s all-too-public Twitter presence. Never mind, as well, that the average off-the-record presidential chinwag with sympathetic reporters is about as unfiltered and spontaneous as your typical reality-TV plotline (to reference the other outside-the-Beltway means of message transmission that our mediagenic president-in-waiting has exploited on his way to mass renown). It’s simply an article of faith among our esteemed chroniclers of D.C. power that there has to be a secret, ruminative side to the awesome figures inhabiting the Oval Office—and that it’s a precious perk of their otherwise thankless day jobs to catch a fugitive glimpse or two of the Great Man Momentarily in Repose. This dream-picture is, indeed, so intoxicating that it applies with equal force to mere major-party presidential aspirants, as anyone nursing the bitter memory of John McCain’s 2008 off-the-record tire-swing press fest will readily attest.
But it should be painfully clear to anyone outside the charmed circle of Washington’s elite press that the ascension of Donald Trump has shattered the logic of this courtly social compact, along with so much else that has long been taken for granted about the orderly conduct of our public life. For Trump to treat members of the national political press as lap dogs would be a decisive step upward in their likely public regard in the Trump age; they might be more justly likened to the dog that a sadistic owner keeps around solely for the sake of kicking at the end of an exasperating workday.
Nor does one have to look very deeply, or for very long, to note the media’s central role in Trump-branded political demonology. The ritual denunciation of the “dishonest” and “sleazy” figures atop our media foodchain was one of the most reliable applause lines in the Trump rally repertoire. And the cynical baiting of the elite press into the repetition of pre-selected image makeovers and talking points is the very business model of Trump’s own in-house media-mogul-cum-White-House-strategist Steve Bannon. Indeed, if you go down the list of Trump’s early cabinet appointments, from Jeff Sessions to Ben Carson, you see a litany of reflexive liberal-media baiting that makes Spiro Agnew’s foundational tantrums on the subject of alleged left-wing press bias seem positively Murrowesque by comparison.
The senseless embrace of the old media order’s protocols are beside the point in the Trumpist media landscape.
What’s more, the senseless embrace of the old media order’s protocols are especially beside the point when one takes the Trumpist media landscape into sober account—and no, I don’t mean by this the Democratic establishment’s own straw-villain of first resort, the fake news plague on social media. In marked contrast to the earlier incarnations of the right-wing media bias hustle, Trump’s movement base isn’t demanding some rough measure of equal time within the elite media for the fair presentation of their point of view—or simply cataloguing instances of perceived cultural slights to the right as a way to goose up the conservative movement’s fundraising revenue streams. Trump’s election has, indeed, taken the right-wing media mainstream. Not only is Breitbart’s maximum leader Bannon poised to be installed at the president’s elbow in the West Wing, but a vast array of reliable sources of hard right agitprop, from the Daily Caller and the Drudge Report to Newsmax and TownHall, now make up the nerve center of the new administration’s messaging operations. We can already descry how this nerve center is bulking up in the rumored interest of Trump’s print Pravda outlet, the National Enquirer in acquiring the New York Observer, a once-proud newspaper that its owner, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, is reportedly looking to unload as he moves on to better things in the new administration. It’s an especially gruesome irony that, in its heyday under its sainted late editor Peter Kaplan, the Observer made a good deal of its name via its coverage of the many missteps and mogul follies of the media industry; the specter of the media operation charged with preserving Kaplan’s legacy essentially taking dictation from the likes of Steve Bannon makes one long for a swift mercy killing, and a dignified burial at sea.
Not that visible dictation-taking is always the order of the day. In this right-leaning political media landscape, not covering Trump can also be part of the message. That would be why, in these sensitive times of transition and Wall Street-friendly cabinet-building, when movement conservatives might find their most cherished campaign hopes abruptly thwarted, some of these sites are downplaying Donald Trump, the most important figure in our national politics, on their homepages.
This is precisely the sort of trend, and pending media realignment, that the mainstream national press is ill equipped to digest, for the simple reason that its leading figures are much too self-enamored to notice the ground shifting beneath their feet. And really, what better way to keep them that way than to fob them off with a few very special, very much off-the-record, opportunities to consort with our incoming Media-Baiter-in-Chief?