As Donald Trump tops yet another poll in the Republican primary race, this one taken after his roundly denounced comment that John McCain “is not a war hero,” the media—left, right, and center—are starting to scare themselves with their own coverage of the loud-mouth billionaire. “Are they creating a monster?” they wonder. Do they risk being publicly ridiculed, like MSNBC and Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart was yesterday? Will Trump give out their cellphone numbers?
The Washington Post ran a piece this week stating that the media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the real-estate tycoon and reality-TV star is to “blame” for his surge in the polls. The Huffington Post announced that it is exiling Trump coverage to the entertainment section (a move an editor admitted was largely “symbolic,” since the site’s front page draws from all sections and is still regularly festooned with Trumpery). Guest hosts on the Glenn Beck Program have gone so far as to declare the show “now 100 percent Trump-free, with 100 percent less Trump.”
Clearly much of the mainstream and conservative media have gotten a memo: What was once fun to cover—like Trump’s bleating about President Obama’s “foreign” birth—has now become an embarrassment. After all, when the school clown runs for class president and wins, everybody from his straight rivals to the high school administration looks bad.
Conservative pundits who venture into the ongoing Trump storm are finding themselves taking on water fast. Like the always–wrong Bill Kristol, who less than 24 hours after deciding that Trump is “wiser” than Hillary Clinton turned around after the McCain comments and said on ABC’s This Week, “He jumped the shark yesterday and he’s dead to me.” Which prompted LZ Granderson, sitting next to him, to recall Trump’s Mexican-rapists remarks. “I’m amazed we think this is the moment he’s gone too far,” Granderson said. “I mean, he went on television and literally slandered an entire race of people. Why wasn’t that the shark that got jumped?”
On Meet the Press, Chuck Todd went a little deeper, asking Rick Perry if Trump’s rise is a “reap what you sow issue” for the Republican Party. After all, Todd said, the “party embraced Donald Trump four years ago…during his whole birther craze at the time, and you actively reached out for him. In hindsight, was that a mistake for the party in general to embrace Trump four years ago?” Perry, who’s vying with Lindsey Graham to ride Trump’s foibles out of the polling basement, looked confused and evaded the question.
But what the Beltway media aren’t asking about is their own role in Trump’s climb to the top. I don’t mean that they’re failing to wonder if they’re giving Trump too much air time—they ritualistically wonder that every time they give any candidate the Malaysia Airlines treatment. (Todd himself whined about the media’s “Clinton fatigue” long before Hillary declared her candidacy; in 2011, some journalists tried to swear off any mention of Sarah Palin.) Where the Beltway media went wrong was in choosing to do the right-left false-equivalency two-step for as long as most of us can remember.
As Eric Boehlert said on The Ed Show, the Washington press corps has “turned a blind eye to the ugly, radical turn that the conservative movement and the Republican Party has taken.” In face of the right’s “unprecedented obstructionism…the press has for years pretended this is a he-said/she-said, both sides are to blame, oh, why can’t they get along” situation. “You throw in the birther nonsense, you throw in the race-baiting from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh—it’s not that unusual, it shouldn’t be that shocking that someone like Donald Trump emerges as a front-runner.… He is the Fox News id.”
For the conservative media, Trump’s awfulness only became a serious issue when it began to split the Republican coalition. You can tell how deep the cleavage runs by looking at the Murdoch empire, which can’t make up its mind about Trump. Rupert Murdoch—an Aussie immigrant until recently married to a Chinese immigrant—is openly uncomfortable with Trump’s xenophobia. After the McCain comment, Rupert tweeted, “When is Donald Trump going to stop embarrassing his friends, let alone the whole country?” (To which David Corn tweeted back, “When Fox News viewers stop supporting him.”)
The next day, Murdoch’s usually Trump-friendly New York Post ran this cover:
Later, an editorial in Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal fumed that “the conservative media who applaud [Trump] are hurting the cause.” Declaring (wishfully) that Trump is now over, the Journal editors wrote, “The question now is how long his political and media apologists on the right will keep pretending he’s a serious candidate.”
What they didn’t mention is that those media apologists are led by Murdoch’s own Fox News.
The split in Murdochland, as The New York Times and New York magazine detail, stems from Roger Ailes’s control of Fox News, and Murdoch isn’t about to silence his cash cow when it’s chewing populist cud. The way Trump’s candidacy is splitting the conservative media is reminiscent of how Reagan split his base of mostly white working- and middle-class males off from the Democratic Party.
Two nights ago, Jon Stewart said watching the nonstop coverage of Trump’s campaign is like “incessant masturbation” that, while diverting, ultimately leaves us feeling “ashamed.” Clearly, some of the press shares the sentiment.
But don’t miss Stewart’s much wilder Trump metaphors from last night: