The Jaundiced Eyeball

Not Intended for Mature Audiences

How the media can contain the Trump threat

Chris LehmannJune 16, 2016
kl801

We need visual and verbal consumer advisories indicating that viewers are encountering a toxic public figure. / kl801

Yes, Donald Trump is once more laying into the media establishment that somehow attacks and slanders him while also acting as the premier delivery system for the bigoted ego rampages that the weary electorate has come to know as Trumpism. The invective-spewing maestro of bankruptcy took to Facebook (the social media outlet he evidently prefers for his more sustained outbursts) to announce that the Trump campaign would henceforth revoke all press credentials for the Washington Post. The reason? The Post had honestly reported on Trump’s imbecilic insinuation, during a recent Fox News interview, that President Barack Obama, in some shifty, unspecified fashion, might have colluded in the horrific massacre of 49 patrons and employees of the Orlando LGBT nightclub Pulse this past Sunday.

Evidently, this is the sort of entitled oafishness you take for granted when you feel empowered to demand that a president resign for failing to adopt your preferred dogwhistle buzzwords to characterize a massacre. (Never mind of course, that Trump’s obsessive need to racialize and credalize the Orlando rampage appears to be entirely of a piece with the shooter’s own failed efforts to impose just this sort of overdetermined, dogmatic culture-war template on the raw material of his own human experience.)

To its credit, the Post promptly denounced the Trump campaign’s effort to define campaign access as a negotiable, revocable privilege doled out in token recognition of a press organization’s comparative deference. And Post executive editor Marty Baron also proceeded to call out the Trump ploy for what it is: “nothing less than a repudiation of the role of a free and independent press.” Baron also properly stood by all of his paper’s Trump coverage, and pledged to continue covering the Trump campaign aggressively, regardless of said campaign’s proclivity to treat access as bribery-by-other-means.

Still, there’s something unsatisfying and uncreative about such high-minded rejoinders. Trump is a career loudmouth and bully, and the last thing that loudmouths and bullies care about is a stand of principle. Indeed, they count on such postures as an effective way of quarantining their more principled opponents from their deeply compromised natural habitats. Surely there must be a way to give the thug a potent dollop of his own medicine. And the time to act is clearly now, with Trump reportedly positioning himself to launch his own Berlusconi-like career as a media potentate after the election.)

Trump is a career loudmouth and bully, and the last thing that loudmouths and bullies care about is a stand of principle.

It’s tempting, of course, to adopt a simple retaliatory stance: If Trump is going to turn press access into a spoil of power, then journalists can subject Trump’s campaign to a blackout. No more wall-to-wall coverage of Trump rallies on cable. No more candidate call-ins to political chat shows permitting the candidate to gargle a few more base-inflaming lies, and then move on blithely to the next media hit. But logistical obstacles aside, this approach lacks a certain Edward R. Murrow-style grandeur. And to greet a strategy of starved-out press coverage with more starved-out press coverage doesn’t really get at the root of the problem.

As it happens, there’s an instructive cue to be found in the media’s handling of the aftermath of the same horrific shooting spree that sent our presumptive GOP nominee into Mussolini mode. In a special two-hour report in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper elected to refrain from naming or picturing the perpetrator. He began the broadcast by solemnly naming all the victims of the mass shooting, and then told his viewers that

there is one name . . . that you will not hear in this broadcast tonight, one picture . . . you won’t see. We will not say the gunman’s name or show his photograph. It has been shown far too much already. . . . In the next two hours, we want to keep the focus where we think it belongs, on the people whose lives were cut short.

Now, of course, this is not a literal blueprint for a revised approach to Trump coverage. Donald Trump may routinely foment violence on the stump (and has a long history of racist demagoguery) but he is not, so far as we know, a violent criminal himself. And refraining from picturing or naming him entirely is another resort to an ill-fated blackout tactic.

What’s clearly workable here, though, is the promise of a fundamentally shifted focus. Like the Orlando shooter, Trump is recklessly misapplying models of ethnic and religious determination to facets of our civic life that have nothing to do with them. And like the shooter, Trump has been carelessly lavished with media attention for his irresponsible behavior. What rational reporter or producer could dispute that in each instance of Kulturkampf incitement, as Cooper says, the perpetrator’s visage “has been shown far too much already,” and that public attention should instead concentrate on the victims of this deadly brand of bigotry?

So my modest media proposal is that the press continue to cover Trump, but with a series of visual and verbal consumer advisories indicating that readers and viewers are encountering a toxic public figure. Again, CNN has helped show the way forward here by displaying chyrons announcing that Trump is baldly misrepresenting the facts during his speeches and press events. That’s a good start, but how about broadcasting Trump’s visage with a black bar across his eyes (or better yet, his mouth) at all times, to signal his standing as a destructive bigot? True, in our louche digital day and age, the classic tabloid black bar is chiefly employed to cover up naughty bits, but a robust case can be made that Trump’s mouth is an obscene body part. Still, the black bar may be too retro for our edgy new millennial mediasphere, in which case, TV news outlets could readily use a pixelated version of the Trump countenance, as they do routinely in their broadcasted testimony from all sorts of disgraced or law-breaking characters.

As for focusing on the victims, that’s where cable news could achieve some real breakthroughs, even at this late stage of media degradation. Each time Trump renews his immigrant-baiting calls for mass deportations, ethnic profiling, border walls and the like, news broadcasts could cut away to Syrian refugee camps, or rabid nationalist mobs in Hungary. This approach would not only place Trump’s stump outbursts in a broader geo-political and historical context; it would lend substance to the self-congratulatory blather that cable shops use to market their work as civic goods. Go there, indeed!

But maybe this is all just so much overthinking. The tried-and-true broadcasting convention for sidestepping the appearance of disagreeable and/or destructive content is the old-school placard announcing that the network is experiencing technical difficulties. It’s no doubt the cheapest available approach to Trump coverage, and God knows that Campaign 2016 has been nothing if not an endless string of tech-related fiascoes. True, a continual display of placards announcing tech setbacks during every single Trump-themed media broadcast could start to look suspicious over time—but then again, there’s a certain admirable candor in announcing to the viewing public an obvious truth: that the coordinates of responsible political journalism have been grotesquely, and irredeemably, scrambled. What’s more, the sheer annoyance factor here feels truer to the actual tenor of Campaign 2016 than your basic roster of fawning Morning Joe Trump hits. Who knows? Maybe the restive TV audience will respond to this provocation by reading a useful book or two—or at least by watching a streamed version of “A Face in the Crowd.”

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.