I dream about the news all the time these days. Partly because I am a journalist by training, and partly because, like many of you, I cannot look away. The news in America has never been this goddamned crazy or this luridly absorbing on a daily basis in my lifetime, or perhaps in anyone else’s.
And so I will be slumped on my couch, holding a glass of Knob Creek and peacefully enjoying the brainless hijinks of a Workaholics episode, and something will remind me of the news—a friend texting in despair about Trump’s Russia connections, perhaps—thereby leading my remote finger to click back onto the funhouse mirror that is CNN in 2017.
Sometimes, too, I have dreams about conversing with Donald Trump. Those dreams vacillate between vicious arguments straight out of a Maury Povich episode and calm and nuanced attempts to either a.) Gather information, or b.) Talk him off the ledge of mental instability on which he constantly seems (fairly or not) to be perched.
I will never actually speak to Donald Trump, I know, but for those of us who wake up every morning fearing a matter-of-fact message from an East Coast friend wishing the best in the midst of the impending apocalypse, there is a sense that we are talking to him every time we turn on our televisions or watch a YouTube video.
And in a way, we kind of are.
What is remarkable is how an original brand of “fake news”—satirical comedy—may now have just as much influence on the president as the media itself.
There are so many strange and dumbfounding and unprecedented elements to the media moment we’re living through—the Trump saturation is so great that the Daily Show’s head writer recently admitted he was watching an old Seinfeld episode from the ’90s and began thinking, Maybe this is a commentary on Trump—but the one that keeps striking me is how we appear to be trapped in a massive feedback loop. And as the Trump administration appears increasingly enveloped in scandal and ineptitude, that feedback loop grows louder and louder.
It goes like this: Trump insults a media entity, either a journalistic entity like CNN or a television program like Saturday Night Live; said entity, having realized that Trump is actually watching what they do, will then acknowledge that Trump is watching by either directly noting that the president may be literally sitting in the Oval Office shouting down the analysis of David Gergen (in the case of CNN) or by doubling down on their criticism (in the case of SNL). Trump will insist publicly that “the media” is full of crooked liars; and Trump privately will consume copious amounts of media in real time, thereby perpetuating the loop.
I suppose we’ve been building to this, given the acceleration of media in the Internet age, and given that a reality television star leveraged that persona to become president. But I don’t think any of us who work in media, or who study media, or who endeavor to understand media, have ever seen anything quite like it.
The public trust in media—which was already pretty shaky, thanks in large part to the massive acceleration of technology in the 21st century and the splintering of ad revenue—is being criticized by a man who, depending on your source, is doing so either to a.) Tear down our institutions, or b.) Tacitly win our approval.
And the question now is: What the hell are we supposed to do about it?
I’ve discovered over the years that potus doesn’t always want to be humanized https://t.co/VIpzqozEbt
— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) February 7, 2017
Maybe, in the case of the journalism, the answer is not to do anything about it. At least, not directly. The job of reporters is not to educate the president or to somehow appeal to him through their work; the job of reporters is to offer truthful fact finding and analysis amid the administration’s blatant co-opting of the term “fake news” to describe anything they happen to disagree with. A friendly media outlet like Fox News—which has deliberately jacked up the ad rates on Bill O’Reilly’s show, knowing that Trump is a regular watcher—isn’t prone to utilize its public platform to attempt to shape Trump’s policy, but will more likely act as a brand of state-sponsored television.
What’s far more fascinating are the journalistic entities that Trump seemingly wishes would approve of him the way Fox does. I presume MSNBC’s Morning Joe is on that list, since Trump is a regular watcher; I imagine CNN might be on it, too, since CNN—believe it or not—is the closest thing we have to an “objective” news network. Recently, after the New York Times ran the story that launched Trump’s bathrobe armaggedon, the Times’ Maggie Haberman appeared on CNN, and Trump then tweeted about the Times right after her CNN appearance. (Feedback loop, indeed.)
The apex of this weirdness is the way Trump continues to harp on The New York Times. There’s a fascinating dynamic at work here, because Trump obviously craves approval—he mentioned as much in his meeting with the Times staff shortly after his election—but he continually lashes out at the Times as a “failing” entity. (Similarly, this administration leaks to journalists like a colander while also insisting that journalism should be marginalized.)
“He wants to be seen as a winner in the eyes of those he perceives as winners,” says Danna Young, an associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware who studies political satire, political media effects, public opinion and the psychology of political humor. “He LOVES The New York Times. It’s clear he desperately wants them to ‘like’ him. It’s his home newspaper. So his consistent references to the ‘failing’ Times are likely an attempt to undermine their credibility, since that is the only angle he has to play right now. It’s like an ‘I’ll bet these grapes are sour anyway’ kind of dynamic.”
The Times has also done very well financially by reporting aggressively on Trump and then selling that coverage to the majority of the country that didn’t vote for the man. So has The Washington Post, which is seemingly breaking jaw-dropping stories on a daily basis. None of that is overly remarkable; most of us who still believe in the role of a free press would argue that this is what they’re supposed to do. But what is remarkable is how an original brand of “fake news”—satirical comedy—may now have just as much influence on the president as the media itself.
The largest player here is Saturday Night Live, which—thanks to Melissa McCarthy’s finely channeled rage sketches—may eventually become the reason Sean Spicer loses his job as the White House press secretary. Trump is clearly obsessed with the public perception of his presidency—“status, popularity, crowd size, margin of victory and any other measure of his ‘winningness,’ ” Young says—which is why, after Spicer was criticized for his sartorial choices following his angry post-inauguration press conference, he bought a better-fitting suit.
But Trump’s direct Twitter criticisms of SNL have also led the show to bait him constantly, so much so that last weekend’s episode with Alec Baldwin as host might have even veered into overkill. Trump scorn now equals higher ratings, and so trolling is a two-way street. I imagine the conversations in the writer’s room at SNL and satirical news shows often feature the question, “How can we bait Trump into tweeting about us?”
Can that work? Maybe on occasion. But I wonder if it’s less effective once Trump knows that you’re trying to bait him. He may not be as, like, smart as he claims to be, but he is savvy when it comes to media, and I’m guessing he would prefer to think he’s wagging the dog rather than the other way around.
A couple of months ago for another Made Man essay, I spoke to the editor of MAD Magazine, who admitted his goal for 2017 was getting Trump to tweet about MAD. But it isn’t going to work for everyone. Trump, Young points out, doesn’t really care about more niche programs like Samantha Bee’s show on TBS or John Oliver’s on HBO. Those shows don’t have big enough audiences to bait him.
And yet that won’t stop them from trying, in part because it’s good for business right now.
“I tell my students that 50 years ago elites exerted significant control over what issues and ideas the public should have access to,” Young says, referring to the successful effort in the Richard Nixon era to get the Smothers Brothers’ comedy show cancelled. “I typically argue: It’s not like that anymore. But now, it’s not so clear.”
There’s no evidence that Trump has directly called NBC or its corporate overlord, Comcast, to get Alec Baldwin to stop mocking him. But as Young points out, conservatives have for years pushed the idea of media deregulation, which means the profit motive now drives nearly everything. “And right now the market is speaking and saying the public wants Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy,” Young says. “Perhaps Trump is reconsidering his ‘free market’ philosophy when it comes to the media’s big old marketplace of ideas. Isn’t that… ironic?”
The night after Young wrote those words to me, HBO aired the first Last Week Tonight episode since the election. In it, John Oliver announced he’d purchased commercial airtime on several Washington D.C. stations during the morning shows Trump supposedly watches, in order to “educate” him on basic issues like the nuclear triad… through the words of a catheter-wearing cowboy.
Oliver’s ads are a sly and self-deprecating joke—in the midst of his monologue about them, Oliver acknowledged that the president doesn’t actually watch his show, so he has to branch out—but they’re also grounded in a very real attempt to rescue the president from himself.
And the fact that Oliver was preceded in this strategy by lobbying groups like VoteVets proves that we’re all grasping at straws these days, that we’re all trying to figure out how the hell to manage our media habits and speak to the president and feel like we have some control in a world that feels increasingly out of control. What did Trump do the morning after the media broke open the story of his campaign’s ties to Russia this week? He tweeted not about the allegations, but about the media who had broken the story.
And so it goes: We have no idea what works in this weird feedback loop, which is why we all find ourselves dreaming about finding a way to break through the noise.