Trump 2024: Will the Media Behave this Time?

Photograph Source: MICHAEL VADON – CC BY-SA 4.0

Donald Trump is running for president again.  Elon Musk has reinstated Trump’s Twitter account.  Will the media be able to resist temptation to cover every inane tweet of his and report on Trump the way he deserves?  Don’t bet on it.

Trump and the mainstream media are a dysfunctional couple.  Trump’s entire life is a fabrication, edified upon his ability to manipulate the media to give it what it wants–easy stories and profits. Even before Trump hosted the Apprentice he manipulated the New York and national media to craft the fiction of his brand. Trump Towers, University, Wine, and golf courses all were a product of careful headlining and boasting by Trump.  Trump got what he wanted from the media–attention and a cult of personality or Trumpism and Trumpistas–and the latter got viewers, readers, and clicks. The fifteen year run of the Apprentice was wildly successful, making Trump a household name and making NBC a pile of money.

Trump’s presidential campaign was a made for television and social media event. Studies confirm the billions of dollars in free advertising his campaign received, in return again for the apparent insatiable appetite reporters and the news establishment had. Trump brought them profits and the media rewarded him with the presidency.

As president Trump perfected the art of the deal.  He knew that starting off the day with several tweets would set the news and media agenda for the day. For a lazy media and reporters looking for easy and cheap stories, Trump’s Twitter feed was addictive. No matter how outrageous, preposterous, or outright untruthful, Trump’s statements were reported, even before he was president.  For example, Trump understood that by declaring John McCain was not a hero it would get coverage. But such coverage was a brilliant distraction.  Better, as they say, bad press as opposed to no press.  Trump’s presidency was a lesson in how breathless reporters hung on his every word.

Donald Trump and the media are the most recent incarnation of politainment–the merger of politics and entertainment.  Trumpism became more than one person or a cult of personality, it became a political movement and attitude. Politainment is the joining of politics and entertainment. Together they produced a media-driven world of alternative facts, pop culture, and hyper-commercialism of candidates, politics, and the news. We still live in that world.

Now Trump is back.  He has hisTwitter account back, courtesy of Musk, another media darling the press cannot help but cover no matter how ridiculous  his comments. The question is will the media be able to resist reacting to every one of his text messages, tweets, or statements made by Trump?  Doubtful.  MSNBC, FOX, and CNN will bemoan him yet cover everything he says or does. It is more than simply covering a train wreck. Trump is political crack or political porn, and he is addictive.

A responsible media would ignore Trump.  Or at least treat him no differently than any other candidate for office.  He deserved less coverage in 2016 and 2020 than Bernie Sanders who was practically ignored by the mainstream press.  It would be better to ignore the Trump lies and nonsense than to cover it and give it a shred of legitimacy and attention.  The fuel that fires Trump is attention.  It is how the Big Lie is spread.  Resist the temptation to give what Trump wants; yet I doubt that will happen.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.