Epic Media Fail: How And Why Trump Trumped The Press

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the press, politics and presidents, explains a journalism fiasco.

01/24/2016 06:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 24, 2016
Morry Gash/ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- At a time when the media’s duty to vet candidates is more urgent than ever, journalism is giving Donald Trump a free pass, leading historian Doris Kearns Goodwin told The Huffington Post in an interview.

Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake; taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into -- and exploit -- every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.

As a result, said Goodwin, the 69-year-old Trump has preempted serious scrutiny of his past, character, record in business and suitability -- if any -- for the office of president.

In the old days Goodwin writes about, vetting (and probably dismissing) Trump would also have been the province of party leaders: prominent, experienced (though not necessarily wise) power brokers in politics, government, business and other upper realms of American society.

But the phrase “party leader” today is an oxymoron, and picking nominees today is totally the province of voters in caucuses and primaries, which makes the civic role of the mainstream press all that more important, Goodwin observed. 

Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Doris Kearns Goodwin at her home in Concord, Massachusetts.

“We in the media are the key purveyors of the qualities of the candidates and of telling people who they are and what they stand for,” said Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose best-selling books on Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Lyndon B. Johnson include studies of their dealings with the press.

"The responsibilities are pretty great."

Is the press carrying out those responsibilities in the case of Trump?

“No. I don’t think so,” she said.

Every candidate is dealing with the same editorial and institutional trends: obsession with polls and conflict, the shorter attention spans of most news consumers and the ruthless aggregation, measurement and marketing of user interactions across scattered social media.

But no one uses these trends as cynically or successfully as Trump to avoid the scrutiny that only the media can provide and that the media, mesmerized, is not providing. 

“Every day he is a new story, which is brilliant in its own right,” said Goodwin. “We see him in a debate, yelling at an opponent, or making fun of somebody or saying something outrageous.”

The focus on conflict rivets attention on the present. And by constantly jabbering about polls and his chances, Trump also throws the focus on the unknowable (but cheap for the media to speculate about) future of the campaign. 

“It’s: ‘How is he going to do?,’” said Goodwin. “It’s: ‘How is this happening? Oh my God, he is leading! It’s possible he could win!’”

By dwelling on the glittering present and the entertainingly uncertain future, Trump erases all sense of history, context and accountability for his own life and actions.

“He doesn’t let you have time to go back to his past,” said Goodwin.

“Do we know, at this point, about his modus operandi in business? Do we know how he treated his staff? Do we know what kind of leader he was when he was building his business? I mean, I don’t know the answers to these things.

“All I know is that, when I see him now, it’s like his past is not being used by the media to tell us who the guy really is.”

No person in public life is more in need of deep investigative scrutiny than Trump, said Goodwin. But the best way to tell his story is through long, complex print pieces of a kind that most audience today have little patience for.

Writing about the late 19th century muckrakers, Goodwin gained an appreciation both for their methods -- they might take two years investigating an oil company -- and the patience of reform-minded readers of those times.

“The trouble today is, first of all, committing the resources, and then it would be a really complex story, and given people’s attention span, who would be reading it?

“And yet I have to say that print journalism is still much more able to tell a complicated story, not only because of length but because the way sentences work. It can’t be shorthanded.”

Trump has another tactic for defeating press scrutiny of the traditional kind, according to Goodwin. In his role as a celebrity brand, Trump isn’t selling a movement or a specific agenda, or even the details of his own track record.

Trump is not a movement. What movement was he ever in?

He is selling his stage persona -- and the related notion that his supporters can somehow mimic him by voting for him. It’s a materialistic version of a religious appeal: the “prosperity gospel” of Norman Vincent Peale and Rev. Ike.

Or it’s like becoming another Beyoncé by buying her lipstick. 

“It’s the idea that he’s ‘The One’ and that they can BECOME him,” said Goodwin. “You’re always looking for a leader who is going to have an impact on your life. I mean, it makes some sense. But in another way it makes no sense at all.”

Media amplifies the presumed power of Trump by conflating celebrity with clout and voters’ faith in an agenda with fan worship.

“Bernie Sanders is a movement; Trump is not a movement. What movement was he ever in? What movement is he in now?

“It’s just him. He’s saying ‘I am here and just somehow, I am going to make things good.’”

“We know enough about leadership to know that that is not true.”

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