Freak show coverage of Trump creates media chaos

Freak show coverage of Trump creates media chaos
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The election of Trump guaranteed the news media would head into the twilight zone. The feverish coverage of the 2016 campaign, it turns out, was just the prelude for what has become a more frantic approach to reporting a President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE. Trump has proven to be as mercurial as predicted. In turn, the press has responded with news coverage that also often comes off as unhinged. Of course, the media can’t control what Trump does. Reporters, however, as the news agenda setters, can control what they do.

Reporting the news about the Trump presidency challenges journalists as never before. The businessman turned celebrity turned politician just isn’t going to behave like his presidential predecessors. He antagonizes the press. He tweets outbursts. He is fact-challenged. He insults world leaders one day then talks nice about the same ones shortly thereafter. It is difficult for the news industry to make sense and put context into such a maelstrom.

For its part, the media, particularly television, has been unable to resist the temptation to cover Trump as a sensational spectacle. The press sees fit to chase every shiny object Trump dangles in front of it. The late Charles Krauthammer once referred to candidate Trump as a “rodeo clown.” It is worth noting that rodeo clowns distract people, kind of like Trump does. And the press seems to respond to every melodramatic eruption du jour with hair-on-fire excitability.


The press rushes from one out-of-proportion headline to the next, focusing on the weird, the sensational and the polarizing. Network newscasts have live updates on location from inconsequential, out of the way places called the Red Hen restaurant. Producers at ABC News’ “Good Morning America” would have dead air if Trump failed to tweet overnight.

Journalists who think they are providing comprehensive coverage of Trump have invited various freaks and provocateurs into the news arena, sparking ratings upticks and clicks, but yielding little perspective or substance. It was big news when Omarosa left her White House job. CNN and MSNBC obsessed for an entire day over a former Trump campaign aide, Sam Nunberg, until somebody figured out the guy had nothing to offer. A burned-out comedian named Roseanne unnecessarily received precious weeks in the nation’s news agenda, simply because she rebooted a tired sitcom and then got it cancelled, all of that supposedly having some significance for the Trump administration.

The freak show news coverage has included porn actress Stormy Daniels and her camera-hogging attorney. Every mention of Stormy’s name gives giddy television news producers the opportunity to show video of Stormy in her various modeling poses. Other freaks entering the “news” agenda include a foul-mouthed Robert De Niro at an awards show, former Vice President Biden wanting a fist fight with Trump, and an array of late-night comics who have somehow been anointed by broadcast news producers as sagacious intellectuals.

The exhausting book tours for Michael Wolff and James ComeyJames Brien ComeyWray says FBI not systemically racist John Durham's endgame: Don't expect criminal charges Trump DOJ officials sought to block search of Giuliani records: report MORE provided yet more bizarre content to fill America’s airwaves. Broadcasters did adoring interviews of two guys who were marketing books more than they were advancing the national dialogue. And they got free air time to do it. These books failed to change the course of history or the Trump administration, or anything else for that matter.

Enough of the freak show news coverage. Such coverage pretty much just spin-cycles a narrative that Trump is himself an oddity, as if the nation didn’t already know that when he was getting elected. That Trump is full of himself, is prone to Twitter eruptions, is unpredictable and hard to work for just doesn’t register much on the news meter any more.

Such an approach to news coverage creates a media chaos. Audiences are tired of seeing news covered with the same freneticism as it is made. The public sphere is full of dramatic attention-seekers, including Trump, who want to steal the spotlight on any day.  No need to obsess over every wild Trump tweet. Rather than giving airtime to the angriest members of Congress, give voice to legislators who are truly working to find a compromise solution.

The news industry needs to pause, catch a breath, and provide a news agenda that is measured and substantial. A national dialogue that is superficial and petty disables democracy. News producers and editors, as the agenda setters, must establish a national conversation based more on heft and less on novelty.

Jeffrey McCall (@Prof_McCall) is a professor of communication at DePauw University.