For myopic media, breaking up with Trump will be hard to do
“Give us a while here in the news media because we’ve got to, you know, learn how to quit [Donald Trump]. It’s like a breakup. We got to get the other president out of our phone contacts.” — CNN anchor Don Lemon.
Breaking up is hard to do, as Neil Sedaka once explained. The ultimate test will occur on Jan. 20 when Joe Biden becomes the nation’s 46th president. In a sane world that includes an objective media, the focus would turn to Biden. But if the apathy of actually scrutinizing the former vice president and asking something resembling a tough question during the campaign and transition are any indication, all things Trump will continue to blot out the sun.
“It’s an hour and 20 minutes into the show and… it’s the first time the name Joe Biden was mentioned,” MSNBC’s Donny Deutsch observed on “Morning Joe” this week. “Enough with Donald Trump already. He’s done. He lost. We, the media, have to be a bit disciplined and not continue to just cover this jerk every time there’s this flatulence. I mean, enough already. He lost, it’s done. We are guilty of keeping him front and center all the time.”
Nice plan, but yeah, that’s not happening. It’s hard to know what’s more addicting: crack or Trump. And to turn the page on Trump means (gasp) holding the powerful (See: Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and possibly Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) if the Democrats gain control of the Senate) accountable.
What a 180 that would be: A hostile press under Trump was overtly hospitable toward Biden in 2020. Town halls were fixed fights to make Biden look good.
The press also has generally been intimidated by Pelosi for years during her time as speaker, all while hailing her as a queen with exquisite taste in sunglasses.
Nancy Pelosi is the Queen https://t.co/vvZp9CWcWf
— Katie Phang (@KatiePhang) February 5, 2020
— MediaResearchCenter (@theMRC) December 13, 2018
A special kind of shade: Pelosi smirks, dismisses Trump https://t.co/kqnFJDcIJ5
— The Boston Globe (@BostonGlobe) February 7, 2019
We’ll also be entering the “But Trump” media era, which will entail the following two scenarios:
If something goes well under Biden, it will be because of his sober, steady leadership. If Biden makes a misleading statement, there will be a “But Trump said/did” X, Y, Z ready and waiting.
For example, if the COVID-19 vaccines – which Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris both helped sow doubt in during the campaign to score cheap political points – result in herd immunity this summer, it will be due to Biden’s A-plus plan in getting it into the arms of the American people. He will be hailed as the president who successfully led us out of the pandemic and put the country back on track.
But if something goes badly under Biden, it will be because of what he inherited from Trump. We saw this movie play out for four years under President Obama after he presided over the slowest recovery since the Great Depression following the financial crisis of 2008. Unemployment was nearly 8 percent heading into the 2012 election. The economy was sluggish, with GDP growing at just 2.2 percent.
No matter: Nearly four years after taking office and spending hundreds of billions in stimulus, Obama was still able to play the victim by blaming Bush, with little pushback from the press.
— Post Politics (@postpolitics) June 15, 2012
And then there’s the business Trump brings to the table for broadcast and print media. Cable news ratings easily saw their highest numbers in history by a country mile. Fox News, for example, finished 2020 as the most-watched basic cable network for the fifth straight year. CNN and MSNBC also had their largest viewerships in history. The New York Times has more subscribers than ever before, as does the Washington Post. This is all primarily due to Trump.
“The ratings are going to collapse. You don’t have to be a genius or an experienced executive to figure that out,” former MSNBC executive Richard Wolffe recently told TheWrap.
That sentiment may not apply to Fox News, however, if the Obama years were any indication (NPR 2009 headline: Fox News thrives in the age of Obama). Unlike Fox, CNN and MSNBC will undoubtedly be hesitant to be critical of Biden, and without conflict and controversy (See: Trump) those channels will struggle once the shine wears off the new presidency.
As for finding a boogeyman replacement for Trump, even if Republicans maintain control of the Senate, any attempt to turn milquetoast Mitch McConnell into some kind of Bond villain will fail, simply because the Senate majority leader rarely says and tweets anything controversial when compared to Trump, and that ain’t good for business.
Unlike George W. Bush, don’t expect this ex-GOP president to go quietly. He’s got 89 million Twitter followers. He lacks discipline. He doesn’t care about looking presidential (or ex-presidential). The faucet and a constant need for attention never gets turned off.
That will help the media put Trump front and center with Biden and Harris largely inaccessible outside of staged, controlled appearances and very few press conferences. (Obama once went 308 days early in his first term without doing a solo press conference; expect more of the same over the next four years.)
The Trump 2024 campaign will likely begin on Jan. 20 during Biden’s inauguration.
Most of the media can only hope. But that still won’t be enough. Trump as president had stakes and power. Citizen Trump – even with his massive following – not so much.
And if Trump does somehow decide to tone it down? Well, let’s just say the breakup will be a long, sad one to witness.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill and a Fox News contributor.