How the media are still flummoxed by Trump

Singer Judy Henske was explaining to her audience at the Grammy Museum recently how she and then-husband Jerry Yester came up with the title of their quirky late-'60s semi-masterpiece, "Farewell Aldebaran," now getting a fresh re-release after being out of print and largely unavailable for several decades.

"I was lying around at home with my first child, just reading through the Encyclopedia Britannica, starting with 'A,' and there it was," she reminisced. "It's an orange giant star. And this is what got me: it's so large that if it were located where our own sun is, as it rises it would literally fill up the entire sky! I mean, just think of that."

Instantly, I had my metaphor for this year's presidential campaign.

BOI-in-the-sky.jpgAldebaran sits in the constellation Taurus, the eye of the bull. With 44 times the diameter of our sun, it's as large as the orbit of Mercury, but with only 1.5 times the sun's mass, it has but a tiny fraction of the sun's density. Yet this giant hollow orange gas-bag has the capacity to dominate and obscure everything else in our field of vision.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. He is, as many have noted, by far the least qualified individual by temperament, experience, intellect, and judgment of any major party presidential candidate in, like, forever. Yet ever since he formally announced in June 2015, there's been an inverse correlation between the substance of his candidacy and the sheer tonnage of ink and airtime he's gotten.

In May, the Portland-based media analysis firm mediaQuant calculated that over the previous year, he'd received $2.8 billion-with-a-B worth of so-called "earned media" exposure, i.e. not purchased or owned media, but unpaid news and social-media mentions. It took eight months, only after she'd won the nomination as the first female major-party presidential candidate, for Hillary Clinton to finally catch up to him in July in monthly earned media value.

We know that Trump is a past master at getting expensive stuff without paying for it. But that doesn't mean the media aren't profiting handsomely by exploiting his notoriety, regardless of the destructive consequences. There was a time when CBS was known as "the Tiffany network," the ne plus ultra of prestigious, quality news and entertainment programming. Today, under executive chairman and CEO Les Moonves, the palace that William Paley once built is no better than a house of ill repute. At a Morgan Stanley technology and media conference in February, Moonves could boast without shame that the presidential race "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." And he added, "I've never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."

Of course, traditional networks like CBS aren't the only ones cashing in while Trump is running amok. As The Atlantic succinctly put it, thanks to the so-called Trump Effect, "Donald Trump is destroying the GOP, pluralism, and all adult standards of common decency. And cable's profits are soaring." I see it on CNN every morning as I'm working out at the gym: it's either endless replays of Trump appearances, Trump surrogates effortlessly fielding softballs lobbed by CNN anchors, or Clinton surrogates or various pundits grilled on their reaction to the latest outrageous Trump statement. Thanks to this kind of coverage, Trump has become the de facto standard for presidential candidates--precisely the "normalizing" of a bizarre, extreme candidacy that Clinton warned about in May.

It's becoming increasingly obvious that just as the political leadership and candidates of both major parties have no idea how to respond to the Trump phenomenon, nor do the news media. His brand of asymmetrical warfare--continual lying, threats, insults, bullying, obsessive braggadocio, policy incoherence--have left reporters utterly flummoxed. As the Washington Post--which has called him "a unique threat to American democracy"-- lamented in a recent editorial, "Mr. Trump is so far from even minimal compliance with the expectations people have set for political leaders over the years that it is hard to put them in the same conversation."

Still, like shuffling zombies, reporters stumble blindly ahead in the name of journalistic "objectivity." But today, the concept has devolved from Walter Lippman's objective testing and verification of facts to the laziest kind of he-said/she-said false equivalency. In that scheme, Trump's latest lies, bluffs and evasions over the Trump U. fraud lawsuit, shady tax breaks in New Jersey and Florida, or cozy dealings with the mob are offset by yet another round of "questions" raised by "perceptions" surrounding Clinton's email server or Clinton foundation fundraising.

And in a truly ironic twist, while reporters formerly resented being spoon-fed out of handouts or news conferences, today's press corps has lost so much enterprise and investigative capability that they've been reduced to complaining that they're not getting enough press conferences from her. Because, after all, Trump may be in full meltdown over his immigration plan or NATO policy, but we demand answers about those damn emails!

Small wonder that as PolitiFact finds that 72% of Clinton's statements are true or mostly true, and 72% of Trump's statements range from mostly false to pants-on-fire lying, she is nevertheless seen by a majority of the public as untrustworthy.

I'm afraid that this year's presidential campaign is no momentary lapse of reason. It's a total eclipse, and it sometimes feels like the darkness will never end.

Photo montage by Joel Bellman

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