Donald Trump needs the media as much as the media thrives on him

Donald Trump needs the media as much as the media thrives on him
© Greg Nash

In the Indian Ocean, there is a strange mutually beneficial relationship that developed between two otherwise rivals. While the fire sea urchin is poisonous and feared, the red urchin crab has learned to carry it on its back. The crab uses the urchin as a weapon while the urchin uses the crab to move freely in new feeding grounds. Washington has its own strange forms of symbiotic relationship and one became evident in two separate interviews by the president of the United States and the president of CNN.

Both effectively admitted that they needed each other. Donald Trump needs the media as a weapon and the media needs Donald Trump to sustain itself. It was a rare moment of honesty in Washington that was lost in the crush of the tragic news of the Pittsburgh shootings and the Florida pipe bomber. The comments of President TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani says he is unaware of reported federal investigation Louisiana's Democratic governor forced into runoff Lawmakers focus their ire on NBA, not China MORE and Jeff Zucker vividly confirmed the strange symbiosis between Trump and his media critics.

Trump has been an anomaly in politics long before his campaign. He has been regularly denounced for false statements. Yet he is also one of the most transparent politicians of his generation, often acknowledging agendas or desires that most politicians conceal. Where Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRonan Farrow exposes how the media protect the powerful Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' Comey says he has a 'fantasy' about deleting his Twitter account after end of Trump term MORE seemed incapable of being open and honest, even when it would have worked to her advantage, Trump will compulsively blurt out the worst possible admissions even when no one is pressing him on them. Examples range from his disastrous interview with NBC anchor Lester Holt on his thinking on the Russia investigation when firing FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyComey says he has a 'fantasy' about deleting his Twitter account after end of Trump term We need answers to questions mainstream media won't ask about Democrats Trump 'constantly' discusses using polygraphs to stem leaks: report MORE or his statements on the travel ban on Muslim majority countries.

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Last week, however, was the ultimate example of a man who likes to play poker with the cards facing outward. Trump told Axios that his overheated attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people” are meant to fire up his base. Trump said, “I couldn’t be here if I didn’t do that.” When asked to stop the attacks, Trump said that he commonly replies, “Hey, I’m here! It got me here.” He added, “I know what I do good and what I do bad. I really get it, okay? I really get it better than anybody in the whole world.”

Moreover, Trump noted that it is “much easier” for him to be nice than it is to be the way he has to be to maintain loyalty from his base. The “way he has to be” appears to endlessly demonizing the mainstream media even when such attacks can easily cross the line into a dangerous form of demagoguery. Such verbal attacks can move a crazed individual like Cesar Sayoc from rage to response in fighting the “fake news” enemy.

The media has shown an equal absence of awareness. Networks like CNN constantly seem to be offer counterpoints rather than coverage, taking the most critical take on every word Trump utters. While Trump gives ample opportunity for negative coverage, many CNN hosts and reporters have abandoned any semblance of detached neutral analysis. The reason was made evident in a recent interview by the network president.

When asked why CNN now seems to report only on Trump and his every move, Zucker had a surprising moment of clarity. It is all about the ratings. Zucker explained, “People say all the time, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about Trump, I’ve had too much Trump.’ We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.”

What is curious is that the tactics do not seem to be working that all well for Trump or CNN. Trump is looking at losing the House and narrowly holding the Senate despite one of the best economies in years. While his popularity has risen, Trump continues to roller coaster on favorability below a majority of voters. While his attacks on journalists have rallied supporters, it has riled a growing number of “anyone but Trump” voters, and pushed suburban moms and independents toward the Democrats.

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At least Trump can claim favorability with his supporters and other conservatives. CNN has ridden its openly negative Trump coverage into the basement of ratings. In October, Fox News again beat both MSNBC and CNN in ratings and posted more viewers than both competitors combined. Fox News averaged 2.8 million to the less than 1.6 million viewers of MSNBC and 931,000 viewers of CNN. In basic cable overall, CNN finished ninth behind the Hallmark Channel and HGTV.

Missing from the remarks of both Trump and Zucker is any notion of the ethical obligations that transcend ratings. A United States president should be a champion of the free press, a defining institution under our Constitution. Likewise, a media president should recognize the duty to cover hard news and not just the most clickbaited subject. While CNN legitimately mocked Trump for bizarre meetings in the Oval Office with figures like Kanye West, it covered those meetings in detail and replayed them on a loop as wars and natural disasters went without mention.

The fact is that the president and the network need each other. CNN anchor Brian Stelter recently took offense when legendary journalist Ted Koppel noted that, despite the caustic comments, Trump has been good for CNN. Stelter responded, “That means what? If ratings are up, that means what?” Koppel did not back down and correctly stated, “The ratings are up. It means you can’t do without Donald Trump. You would be lost without Donald Trump.” When Stelter shot back, “Ted, you know that’s not true,” Koppel responded with the common view that “CNN’s ratings would be in the toilet without Donald Trump.” Stelter brought an angry retort and said, “You know that’s not true. You’re playing for laughs.”

Zucker basically said that same thing and confirmed that CNN is playing for ratings. Call it sensational symbiosis. Trump carries the media like a red urchin crab while CNN rides him as far as he can go. They both benefit by maintaining a level of anger while ignoring the obvious damage to both the presidency and the press. Both play to relatively narrow bandwidths of voters and viewers to achieve short lived returns. That is the thing with mutualism among symbiotic creatures. The benefits rarely extend beyond the two animals, while the costs can be great for those around them.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.