Donald Trump may be the greatest thing to happen to the press since Johannes Gutenberg. He’s saved your favorite newspapers, pumping up subscriptions while flinging 50 front-page stories a day at a tumescent press corps. Each time Trump cries, “Fake news!,” someone gets a book deal or a $100,000 cable contract. He slimes a reporter on Twitter, friends order balloon letters spelling out Trump’s insult and fly them at the reporter’s birthday party.
For many in the national media, the last four years have been one big party. This is a president so enthralled with us that he installed 60-inch TVs around the White House to TiVo cable, live-tweets his reviews of the Sunday papers, and even watches HBO.
Despite what you are reading or seeing, to borrow Trump’s line, the media loves him back. To be sure: the Trump era has been chockablock with formidable feats of journalism. But for every Maggie Haberman or David Fahrenthold, there are 10 washed-up Washington has-beens, revivified and enriched from simply trashing Trump—the easiest thing in the world to do—or sucking up to him. They are the remora of the Trump swamp—fishy creatures who attach themselves to bigger fish. The question many of them should be asking now is not “Will Trump win in November?” It’s “What will I do if he doesn’t?”
Maybe no one in media has benefited more from Trump than Jeff Zucker. When tapes leaked last month of CNN’s president on a call with Michael Cohen in 2016, sucking up to Trump by offering debate advice, calling him “the boss,” and saying that he had “all these proposals” for Trump to do a weekly show with him, it was as unsurprising as it was emetic.
Before he was The Boss of CNN, Zucker was head of NBC Entertainment, from which position he green-lighted The Apprentice. He pimped the Donald out for all the ratings and gold he was worth, ultimately forging the impression of Trump as an actually successful businessman in the mind of Middle America. This caricature is what unlocked Trump’s future path to electoral victory.
As Trump himself put it, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 2015, “Jeff is a friend of mine, but if I didn’t get ratings he would not have all Trump all the time. I kid him about it.”
What’s so stomach-churning about those leaked tapes is that Zucker turned CNN into a carny facsimile of what it once was, devoted entirely to trashing a man that … Zucker seems to personally like. His all-Trump-all-the-time ratings gold rush has been central to our media rot. Charles C. W. Cooke summed it up best in a cover story for the National Review last year, when he wrote, “These days, CNN is a peculiar and unlovely hybrid of progressive propaganda outlet, oleaginous media apologist, sexless cultural scold, and frenzied Donald Trump stalkerblog.” Or, as Ted Turner said in 2018 about the network he founded: “I think they’re sticking with politics a little too much. They would do better to have a more balanced agenda, but that’s just one person’s opinion.” Ted, you ain’t the only one.
He torpedoed John McCain’s 2008 campaign and then landed at MSNBC. (D.C. insiders couldn’t help but note his conspicuous absence from McCain’s funeral in 2018—there are rumors he was told to stay away—an event understood to be the ultimate show of force for the Washington establishment in the Trump era.) Next, Schmidt wrung a payday out of former Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Schultz that was sweeter than a Venti Caramel Frappuccino, helping Schultz explore a 2020 presidential run that never went anywhere. Now Schmidt has cloaked himself in the miasma of Trump hatred, finding a way to stay in the game via the Lincoln Project.
You get the feeling that what Schmidt and his ilk must really hate about this president is that, in one fell swoop, he dispensed with the multi-million-dollar services of consultants who lose race after race but somehow only get richer. Trump is his own consultant. But, mercifully, he has opened up a new market in fleecing liberals who fall for the principled-Republican act. On Lincoln Project fundraising calls, skeptical Democratic donors sometimes ask how they can be sure that all this dinero won’t be directed to Republican senatorial candidates in 2022 and beyond. Schmidt’s answer usually goes something like this: We’re totally focused on defeating Trump and Trumpism right now. Cha-ching!!!
If these other media whores are ornithologists, Bannon is a bird. The former Trump strategist was a media creation whose love of the press became his downfall. It rankled Trump when Bannon appeared on the cover of Time—how quaint!—and it was Bannon’s blabbing to reporters all over town that ultimately did him in. Since his White House ouster, in 2017, Bannon has worked hard to keep up the diabolical-genius image in the press. The whole thing was blown recently after he was charged for conning a bunch of people who had donated to his “We Build the Wall” project. But he’ll be back. The press loves a redemption story. And Bannon loves the press.
In the capital, the Conway cogito was always as follows: Kellyanne works (for Trump), therefore George is. He would not have gained legions of Twitter followers, a column in The Washington Post, or a buzzing social life had it not been for his wife’s proximity to power. The curdled Carville-Matalin routine seemed to be working out just fine for him. But then, the Conways’ 15-year-old daughter, Claudia, seized the means of production, wooing the media with her caustic Twitter feed that put both Mommy and Daddy on blast and generating a blizzard of headlines. You almost (almost) had to feel sorry for Kellyanne when she stepped down from her White House job. George, for his part, bravely announced that he would be stepping away from … his Twitter account. But not for long. He was soon back, comparing Trump to 9/11. What would we have done without his brilliant Trump analysis?
The briefing-room warrior and self-licking ice-cream cone of one. Colleagues roll their eyes at this CNN correspondent’s constant theatrics: the hyper-partisan needling, the way he makes himself the story, that his questions rarely seem designed to elicit information but rather foment spectacle. It’s not that we don’t love a brawler in the briefing room. Take, for example, Yamiche Alcindor of PBS. She is the anti-Acosta, leveling tough questions in a dispassionate way, never falling for the bait by letting testy exchanges be about herself or her own feelings. When she tangos with the president or a top flack, we often learn something. When Acosta does it, we learn about Jim. His self-aggrandizing book is titled The Enemy of the People: A Dangerous Time to Tell the Truth in America. Certainly, it will be a dangerous time for his ratings with Joe Biden behind the podium.
Her briefing-room antics were so Acostian that Ryan, bureau chief for American Urban Radio Network and a CNN commentator, eventually took the show on the road. At a speech Ryan was giving in New Jersey, her bodyguard roughed up a reporter. It took days for Ryan to deign to respond, and when she did, she began dissembling in a way that sounded not unlike … a Trump press secretary! (Her book? Under Fire: Reporting from the Front Lines of the Trump White House.)
Chanel Rion & Friends
A White House correspondent for the crackpot OAN (One America News) Network, Rion is the scurrilous figure in the back of the room, lobbing questions such as: “Do you consider the term ‘Chinese food’ racist?” In a normal White House, OAN would not be credentialed. Rion is just one of a core of similarly sycophantic “reporters” who work at places such as the Daily Caller and the Federalist and who post up at the bar of the Trump International Hotel in D.C., night after night, hoping to ingratiate themselves in Trumpworld.
As Trump recently tweeted in part, after catching his former communications director on a Fox News appearance, “.@Scaramucci, who just made a fool of himself as he got taken apart by @SteveHiltonx, only lasted 11 days in his favorite of all time Administration.” One gets the feeling Scaramucci will be dining out on those 264 hours for an eternity. (The title of his book? Trump: The Blue-Collar President.)
This Republican strategist describes Dick Cheney as his “mentor,” toiled for Rudy Giuliani, and used to tweet foul things about Joe Biden. (One 2012 entry: “Here comes Joe ‘I’m A Catholic, Except for the Third Trimester Abortions’ Biden.”) But all that is forgiven, thanks to his poisonously mediocre anti-Trump screeds. Everything Trump Touches Dies is his subtly titled book. Wilson seems to be enjoying his newfound status as Resistance Hero, so it only makes sense that, in his own way, he’s probably hoping Trump sticks around. How else to interpret Wilson’s appearance on CNN earlier this year, when he delivered to Trump a moment that was “Deplorables” times a thousand? In a mock Southern accent, Wilson mocked voters and “the credulous boom rube demo that backs Donald Trump, that wants to think that Donald Trump is the smart one and y’all elitists are dumb.” As Don Lemon laughed, smacking his head down on his desk, Wilson continued in character, “Your math and your reading!” Trump himself could not have devised a better re-election ad. Right-wing media pounced. Nice work, Rick!
Saturday Night Live
This era is often described as “beyond parody.” But S.N.L. managed to pull it off. Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway and Jeff Sessions. Scarlett Johansson as Ivanka. Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer. Their treatment of Trumpworld worked. Relevancy and ratings come thanks to Trump’s lame cri de coeur about the show. And so does material. If 45 gets 86’d, these jokers will have to actually get their act together. You think Joe Biden will be serving up this caliber of character on a weekly basis?
Shawn McCreesh is a writer based in Washington, D.C.