* For though Trump is an attention guzzler—he wants an audience to notice him every hour of every day—he has a smaller need than the average politician for wide popularity. An extra skin or protective layer of unconcern goes with his readiness to say or do the abrasive and insulting thing. It was this that most set him apart from his immediate predecessors, Obama and the younger Bush. The numerical minority and electoral majority that lifted him to the presidency seem to have done it partly in response to this trait. He offered a perversely satisfying relief from the soft-sell pandering of American political life.
* For the Rolling Stone political commentator Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, all the news media—with a few online exceptions—are part of a single poisonous and self-reinforcing information ecosystem. Taibbi thinks the Times is blamable for distorted political coverage, over the last three years, of a sort that renders it a nearer neighbor of Fox News than its most loyal readers could possibly imagine. Since Hate Inc. is largely put together from columns of that period—the same is true, to a lesser extent, of Audience of One—we get a view of Taibbi’s discontents with the media as they took root and ramified.
An early and symptomatic document of the Trump media environment, he suggests, was a Times column by Jim Rutenberg, published in the summer of 2016. Rutenberg argued that reporters had a civic duty to repel the unique threat of a Trump presidency; the press should now be “true to the facts…in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.” Did this mean a surer method had emerged for standing up to history’s judgment than the persistent and energetic pursuit of the truth? Isn’t that what reporters have always cared about and worked to exemplify? Apparently, something else was now demanded. Each dawn of a Trump day, a reporter should waken fully conscious of the call at his or her back: Which side are you on? Anti-Trump journalism achieved an early climax of barely suppressed pathos in the Times headline Taibbi quotes from the morning after the 2016 election: DEMOCRATS, STUDENTS AND FOREIGN ALLIES FACE THE REALITY OF A TRUMP PRESIDENCY.
And the same question has kept returning: Are you on the right side of history? It came up recently, once more, in the leaked “town-hall meeting” at the Times, at which the executive editor, Dean Baquet, declared that, in view of the anticlimax of the Mueller Report, the Times would “have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis” to deal with racism as its major issue. Subsequent discussion at the same meeting and the publication the following Sunday of the paper’s 1619 issue—the first fruit of many months’ work on a project that “aims to reframe the country’s history” around slavery and its consequences—gave a concrete meaning to the editorial order to regroup.
In the pattern Taibbi describes, this was a typical expression of the ethic that pervades the anti-Trump media.
* Even by the standard of the tabloids, the decision to assign separate reports on individual tweets (often interesting only for their vulgarity) was a step down in class for both the Times and The Washington Post. The grave-faced attitude toward these presidential squirts and squibs may have encouraged government officials—including James Mattis, a nontrivial case—to confer legal status on them.
* Taibbi’s angriest chapter is his best. He calls it “Why Russiagate Is This Generation’s WMD.” He means that the exorbitant claims regarding Trump’s status as a “Russian agent”—claims associated with John Brennan in the intelligence community, Rachel Maddow on TV, Adam Schiff and Mark Warner in Congress, and scores of writers in the print media—have proved to be a symptom of group thinking as misleading as the disinformation sown by Cheney, Bush, and Tony Blair to support the bombing and invasion of Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein was an internationally nonthreatening tyrant, and not a maniac bent on nuclear destruction of the United States. Trump is a corrupt businessman, the crony of others in the US and elsewhere who put their self-interest before their country, but he is not a Russian agent.
* the prototype for Trump’s brags and threats in the occupational skills he learned from World Wrestling Entertainment. His 2007 challenge against Vince McMahon, which can be watched on YouTube, leaves no doubt about his showmanship. He threatens McMahon in high astounding terms, and they agree the loser will have his head shaved by the winner. McMahon lost, and Trump (with obvious relish) kept his promise and shaved the loser’s head. “A pure heel,” says Taibbi—quoting the wrestler Daniel Richards and referring to the typecast bad guy in a match—“wants to be booed by everybody.” This is only partly true: the audience at the challenge seems to be at once booing and cheering for Trump, but the difference between the booing and cheering has become peculiarly hard to discern.
When he transferred his WWE experience to party politics, Trump, at home in a no-man’s-land of the instincts, could shrug off the burden of civility. “The campaign press,” says Taibbi, “played the shocked commentator in perfect deadpan, in part because they were genuinely clueless about what they were doing. They never understood that the proper way to “cover” pro wrestling, if you’re being serious, is to not cover it.”
They are still playing that part, still covering Trump with an assiduous care they deny to more consequential subjects: climate change, the Greater Middle East wars that continue to be fought by the US, and threats to free speech that emanate from social media giants like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, as well as from campus censors and Republican state lawmakers.
* the studio sets of TV news programs like Meet the Press now resemble the pre-game shows for NFL football.
He might have added the CNN countdown that precedes, by as much as forty-eight hours, a speech by a political celebrity. Or the officious request for a show of hands on this or that major issue by a slew of docile presidential hopefuls. The media today occupy the same world as politicians, and that is a problem. At any given moment, it may be a puzzle to decide who is calling the tune. In the hour-and-a-half speech in defiance of impeachment and Congress that Trump delivered on October 10 at the Minneapolis Target Center, he asked the cheering thousands on the scene to join him in a memory of Election Day 2016. It was, he said, “one of the greatest evenings in the history of this country,” but a few sentences earlier he had paid it a higher compliment: “One of the greatest nights in the history of television.”