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How to be President, in 140 characters or (much) less

Missive from New York. Traditional US media are struggling with the most surprising turn in US politics for decades. But it’s not all bad news.

David Elstein
12 December 2016
A wall of post-it notes on Trump's election inside Union Square subway station. Photo courtesy of the author.

A wall of post-it notes on Trump's election inside Union Square subway station. Photo courtesy of the author.Barack Obama, like so many others, never saw it coming. Assured by his pollsters that his anointed successor had a lock on the election, he was stunned by the actual result. So in his classy, graceful way, he took on the role of grief counsellor for his shocked and shattered staff as Hillary’s brick wall in the Rust Belt collapsed – barely defended, as it turned out, with her electoral strategy undermined by complacency and a sharper, cheaper, better-organised opposition.

Of course, Clinton won the popularity contest, piling up useless millions in California and New York, whilst neglecting the votes that actually counted, in the Electoral College. Trump, in his thin-skinned, spoilt-brat, brash and bombastic way, took to Twitter (as he does) to claim that only millions of illegal ballots handed Hillary the pointless popular mandate. Unsubstantiated would be the kindest word to describe such an outburst: the New York Times – followed swiftly by other liberal news outlets such as CNN and NBC – termed it “baseless” in its headline. When a former senior reporter mildly protested that such an adjective better fitted the opinion pages than the news pages, the NYT responded by calling the claim a “lie”, in its leader column.

Floundering news media

All through the election campaign, Trump’s favoured modus operandi – outrageous statements, early morning Twitter blasts, gross and insulting behaviour – had left the news media floundering to find the right vocabulary and stance to describe and deal with his candidacy.

For many months, the bastions of liberal thinking – the NYT, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books – gazed in astonishment as Trump demolished a dozen or more of his rivals for the Republican nomination, with a display of bullying vulgarity that seemed certain to sink him in a general election if he survived the primaries.

They seemed barely to grasp that this by-passing of normal standards of decency in political discourse was accompanied by a by-passing of traditional media. The Twitter feed, the terse press conference announcements and the slogan-fuelled rallies cut straight through to voters, and his anti-establishment vituperation – however bizarrely vocalized by a billionaire deal-doer – resonated so strongly that Hillary, too, felt compelled to denounce the “elites”: and was even more unconvincing than Trump in doing so. Hillary, too, felt compelled to denounce the “elites”: and was even more unconvincing than Trump in doing so.

It is not that the reporting of the campaign by the liberal media was inaccurate or unfocused: just – to a large extent – irrelevant. These publications spoke to their own readers, barely a handful of whom were ever likely to vote for Trump. In the week after he had won, the New Yorker was still publishing a lengthy article about whether an obscure Democratic candidate for a post in Clinton’s administration might find his path blocked in the Senate. The current edition has a hero-worshipping profile of Obama by the editor so oleaginous in its unstinting praise that one forgets that the author – David Remnick – once used to deliver sharp and fluent journalism. Truly, the left is in mourning.

Conflicts of interest

The New York Times – as a newspaper rather than a journal – struggles harder with the Trump phenomenon. It hates everything he stands for, but tries to frame its reporting within the usual conventions of accuracy. The effect is sometimes comical. Its multiple articles on Trump’s supposed conflicts of interest and duty to divest keep tripping over themselves. Its star business reporter berated Trump for “forcing” the Secret Service, in order to protect the President-elect, to pay rent for space in Trump Tower (“which will line his pocket”), almost as if there was no previous rent-paying tenant in that space. A week later, it published an article by two business experts, Steven Solomon and Michael de la Merced, who noted that “heightened security has diminished the value” of Trump Tower to a figure well below its pre-election level.

Amusingly, this article calculated that Trump’s net worth exceeds $4.5bn – yet only a few days beforehand, another article had bitterly criticised him for suing an author (another NYT report, Tim O’Brien) who put his net worth ten years ago at $150-250 million (the libel suit failed). The article by the two experts effectively demolished the whole divestment argument, especially once Trump revealed he had disposed of all his holdings in stocks and shares back in June. Virtually all Trump’s assets are in the shape of property holdings, often minority stakes. It is hard to see how these holdings would be affected one way or another by his presidency. Will retailers suddenly pay higher rents for space in a partly Trump-owned property? Why? Will would-be guests who choose (for whatever reason) to stay at a Trump hotel be out-numbered by those who wouldn’t touch one with a bargepole? Why would part-ownership of a property in San Francisco, or Wall Street, represent a conflict of interest? There has even been a suggestion that he revoke his half-share from the profits in the TV hit he co-created, “The Apprentice” – though why is not clear. There has even been a suggestion that he revoke his half-share from the profits in the TV hit he co-created, “The Apprentice” – though why is not clear.

Solomon and de la Merced – somewhat reluctantly, one feels – concluded that the only conflicts that might arise were with overseas construction and merchandise brands, where somehow Trump might compromise US interests in favour of his own. But as the authors point out, divesting those activities – which constitute about 2% of Trump’s assets – would be tricky, as much of their value lies in his continuing involvement. Never mind, they say – shut them down: writing off their estimate of $137 million is surely “not a big sacrifice for someone to be President of the United States”.

Photo courtesy of author.

Photo courtesy of author.

Trump rally

Part of the problem for the liberal press is that the US has never had as a President someone who has spent his whole career making (a lot of) money. It has had professors (Obama, Woodrow Wilson), lawyers (Coolidge, Taft), trust fund playboys (Kennedy, FDR), generals (Eisenhower, Grant), modestly successful businessmen (the Bushes, Hoover, Johnson) and a bankrupt haberdasher (Truman). Trump is simply on a different scale, and understandably sneers at the Sulzbergers, who spent years destroying value at the family firm (what Trump sometimes calls “the failing New York Times”) before its recent modest recovery, currently driven by the stock market’s “Trump rally”.

Almost any breach of conventional politics by Trump seems to throw the press off-balance. He tweets that he has been telephoned by the President of Taiwan (implying it was a casual call): there is outcry at this seemingly off-hand breach of a 65-year diplomatic convention that the US does not recognize Taiwan. Then the Times reports that the call had been carefully prepared by a lobbyist for Taiwan, former vice-presidential candidate Robert Dole – so is the snub to China better or worse for being deliberate? Trump cannot help teasing such po-faced antagonists. Flag-burners, the CIA, trade union officials, companies that export jobs to Mexico – Trump wakes up, flails at them on Twitter, and moves on. Trump’s parading of potential candidates for cabinet office through the foyer of Trump Tower has been criticised as unseemly, rather than praised for its transparency.

Even Trump’s parading of potential candidates for cabinet office through the foyer of Trump Tower has been criticised as unseemly, rather than praised for its transparency. His willingness, as part of the selection process for Secretary of State, to be seen dining with Mitt Romney – the man who had effectively denounced him as the Anti-Christ and may well not even have voted for him – is seen as flip-floppery rather than magnanimity. That Trump personally interviews dozens of potential appointees is what one would expect from an experienced businessman: Obama carried out none in his appointment process, relying on his transition team to select the cabinet members, whom he then met formally to confirm them in post. Bizarrely, Remnick reports Obama’s claim to have “talked Trump through the rudiments of forming a cabinet” at their much-hyped post-election meeting.

The current hit revival on Broadway of “The Front Page” depicts a mayoral election in Chicago in 1928, and the role of the press in forcing corrupt politicians to abandon plans to execute a wrongly convicted prisoner. Journos as heroes? Not so fast: the stage directions for the play introduce the lead newspaperman, Walter Burns, as “that product of thoughtless, pointless, nerve-drumming immorality that is the Boss Journalist – the licensed eavesdropper, troublemaker, bombinator and Town Snitch, misnamed The Press”. Surely nobody could apply such a description to the urbane Mark Thompson, CEO of the NYT (and former DG of the BBC) – or even his executive editor, Dean Baquet. Yet the NYT and its ilk have been sucked – suckered? – into a combative relationship with the President-elect, allowing him to shrug off criticisms of his shooting-from-the-hip remarks about Muslims, women, Mexicans and other random targets as “got up by the press”.

In this, of course, he is not unique. Obama, in the midst of Remnick’s panegyric, muses that Clinton may have suffered with the electorate, not because of her unwise decision to make highly-paid speeches to Goldman Sachs directors, but because of “the reporting around the Goldman speeches”: seemingly forgetting that it was Bernie Sanders who trimmed a point or two off her ratings every time they debated and he asked what was in those speeches that was so secret. It was Bernie Sanders who trimmed a point or two off her ratings every time they debated and he asked what was in those speeches that was so secret.

Nor can the NYT, New Yorker and New York Review blame the slide of their journalism into partisanship entirely on Trump’s absurdities. Their coverage of the UK referendum on EU membership had been remarkably one-eyed. Indeed, their hostility to Brexit has become more marked since June 23, outdoing – not least in the comical ignorance of their reporting – even the most impassioned of Remain journalists in the UK itself.

On the day after Theresa May won a huge majority in the Commons for a resolution to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, and the Supreme Court completed its hearings on article 50, the NYT published some 100 stories, including four on the UK – but not a word on those two major events. The four articles included a doom-laden anti-Brexit story from a car factory that employs 2% of the UK’s car-workers; a jokey piece on enthusiasts tracking “ghost” trains; a short item on the report about sexual abuse by police officers; and a lengthy profile of Jeremy Irons and his Jack Russell-bichon frise dog, Smudge. If you find that normally well-informed Americans are puzzled by Brexit, look no further for the reason. 

Photo courtesy of the author.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Assured by the responsible media that the buffoon could not win the election, tens of millions of Americans are today non-plussed, depressed, alarmed or even frightened by the notion of a Trump presidency. Thousands of them created a wall of post-it notes inside Union Square subway station, displaying a colourful and heartfelt collective response to what so many of their media outlets had told them could never happen. But then, “media” is a very fluid concept these days, with a huge range of websites offering “news” of sorts, some of it wildly unreliable. We live in the “post-truth”, fake news era. And with a master of Twitter, and its attendant brief attention span, readying himself for the White House, the challenge to the old cadre of news organisations is both perplexing and potentially compromising.

Upside?

But there is an upside. Non-profit news organisations are currently reporting a sharp increase in donations. Politico has raised more in the weeks since the election – $750,000 – than it pulled in for the whole of 2015. The New York Times has seen a surge in subscriber numbers and subscriber engagement. Indeed, Mark Thompson believes that, at 1.6 million customers, it has only scratched the surface of a potential 10-million subscriber base. Imagine the sheer news firepower such a model would generate.

Is such a six-fold increase realistic? The consensus analyst view is that Netflix will multiply its revenues six times over the next decade, from $3 billion dollars this year to a staggering $18 billion (eat your hearts out, all at our dear BBC). CBS believes its annual revenues from secondary sales of the programming it owns will multiply five-fold, to $2.5 billion, within a few years. I would call this a flight to quality in the midst of fragmentation and trivialisation.

Donald Trump has carved an improbable pathway to power. In truth, he has barely changed from the loud-mouth showman US TV viewers have become familiar with over the years. He has been tabloid fodder for decades (and not surprisingly is catnip for the likes of the New York Post today, revelling in the discomfiture of its lofty rival, the NYT). He has been used to sharing the “news” pages in the Post with the likes of Bud, the grey parrot who may be called as a witness in the case of the woman charged with her husband’s death in a failed murder-suicide pact. For a year, it seems, Bud has been repeating the phrase “don’t f---ing shoot!”: he should have no trouble being sworn in, then.

Likewise Trump: a President for the Twitter age will take office in January, unencumbered by any political history or much in the way of party obligation. He is – and, necessarily, we are – about to embark on a voyage into the unknown. Hold tight, and keep your Twitter feed ready.

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