Media Columnist David Zurawik discusses the need for a gut check on how the media covers President Trump and those close to him. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
We are a nation hopelessly distracted by a 71-year-old, narcissistic media addict in the White House and a cable news industry that can't get enough of him.
The dance cable news and the president have been doing virtually 24/7 since he started vanquishing his Republican challengers is dazzling — almost hypnotic if you are a media critic. But in recent weeks, that relationship has come to feel deadly to democracy. Millions of us are riding the tiger of cable news each day and night as the presidency and the nation seem to careen from crisis to crisis and showdown to showdown.
As a nation, we are getting nothing of importance done. Not healthcare, infrastructure or even planned budgeting. In fact, it seems as if we don't even know what it is that we want to do anymore. We certainly don't have anything resembling a national narrative pointing us in a purposeful direction and motivating us to try and get there.
Instead of an informed conversation of democracy about our national priorities, we have a nonstop, crazed, unscripted cable TV production featuring President Trump and a cast of characters ranging from his smug senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner to skeezy Steve Bannon, the ousted White House chief strategist and far-right news executive, and the president's most vociferous friends and foes in the media. Think Fox News' Sean Hannity leading the former, and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow the latter. Each is enjoying some of the best ratings of their careers thanks, in large part, to Trump.
And let's not forget the walk-on, guest-starring roles in this production for the likes of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and short-lived White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci when a little darkness, mystery or comic relief are needed to keep viewers tuning in.
(We forgot about Veselnitskaya and the Russians lately, haven't we? But not to worry, Justice Department investigator Robert Mueller, the one force of moral authority in this sleazy soap opera, hasn't. The Russians will be back in a multipart story arc.)
Look at the way Trump and cable TV have pinballed the nation's attention in just the last week.
When Trump fired Bannon on Aug. 18, a late-summer Friday afternoon went from workweek-winding-down to frothing-at-the-mouth, media-feeding frenzy. And, not coincidentally, the focus momentarily shifted away from Trump's widely criticized remarks about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that turned deadly the weekend before.
Fired in the morning, Bannon was back at the Breitbart News Network as executive chairman by the end of the day. How's that for an unnatural and unhealthy relationship between the presidency and the press?
As tense as the situation with North Korea was on Aug. 19 and 20, it was the relationship between Bannon and Trump that dominated cable coverage all weekend. Bannon said he had his "weapons back" with his return to Breitbart, and cable news was nonstop speculation about which members of the West Wing Bannon was going to attack with those weapons.
By Monday morning, headline-by-headline deconstruction of the Breitbart homepage under Bannon was added to the cable mix with analysts debating which "globalists" in the West Wing the former White House aide was going after. "Inside baseball" doesn't start to describe the chatter.
But that quickly gave way to speculation by mid-day over what Trump would say in a prime-time address Monday night on the war in Afghanistan.
This promised to be real news for once, instead of the Twitter stink bombs the president regularly drops on us. The event was certainly tricked out for the screen, staged at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington with a hall full of flags and military personnel in combat fatigues to make sure viewers understood we were talking about war.
But there was no real news in the address except that we were sticking with the same-old, same-old in Afghanistan despite Candidate Trump's promises of change. He wouldn't even say how many troops he was adding. Some TV event.
And then, another prime-time TV Trump performance on Tuesday — this one a red-meat rally in Phoenix. The president went off script and gave full vent to his enmity for the press and anyone criticizing him on Charlottesville or opposing him in any way.
I witnessed Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon having some pretty shaky TV moments in their darker and more paranoid days, but I have never seen anything on TV from a president as disjointed and unsettling as Trump's performance in Phoenix.
But there was still more TV Trump to come Wednesday in Reno, where the president did another 180-degree turn, saying it's time "to heal the wounds that have divided us."
As the MSNBC banner said after the speech: "President Trump calls for unity after scorched-earth rally speech."
Cable news was there for every head-spinning, schizophrenic turn. And I was there watching most of it from 6 a.m. to midnight daily. I did this in hopes of finding some clarity on the question of how cable should be covering Trump at this point in his presidency.
When he was a candidate in 2015, It was an easy judgment to denounce cable morning shows for letting him call in and have the run of a show for as much as 30 minutes. That was outrageously irresponsible journalism, but the ratings he generated were addictive, and none of the channels wanted to be the one walking the high road alone.
Today, with Trump in the White House, it is not such an easy call. But I believe there is a more balanced approach to TV coverage than the one helping to make us such an addled nation.
Cable news has to cover virtually everything Trump does. There is no wiggle room on that. The power of the office to influence our lives demands it. And that includes tweets.
But there is coverage, and there is overkill. And in my viewing of the last seven days, I saw two prime examples of overkill: the endless chatter about Bannon the weekend following his dismissal and the full day of pundit speculation advancing Monday night's speech.
Cable TV was full of panels before Trump's Afghanistan speech speculating as to what he would say. And then afterwards, it was full of talking heads discussing mostly what he didn't say or do.
After all that talk, I went to bed more confused about Afghanistan than I was in the morning when I turned on the TV. This kind of pre-event build-up is standard operating procedure for cable news when it comes to Trump, especially when he is doing a planned rally or speech.
Cover the event by all means, but spare us the hype leading up to it.
The nonstop Bannon chatter was worse. If Bannon was half as influential as he wanted people to believe while he was in the White House, he mattered then. But as chief of an alt-right-friendly "news" platform, not so much. The inordinate amount of time spent spent gossiping about Bannon and his friends or enemies in the West Wing indicates the of the way cable news has lost a sense of proportion in its coverage of Trump.
Even as MSNBC and CNN harshly and rightfully criticize Trump, they are endlessly filling the airwaves with talk about him, whether or not there is anything new or substantial to say. And, by doing that, they are abrogating their duty in a democracy to help set an agenda that serves citizens.
If Trump is going off the rails, as many of the talking heads on those channels asserted after his Tuesday night rally, it is all the more imperative that, in addition to their coverage of him, outlets like MSNBC and CNN also provide us with news, information and analysis that helps keep the nation on track.
The ratings for that kind of coverage likely won't be as high as those for coverage of the Trump White House as a nonstop soap opera. But what the nation needs right now is a little more grown-up journalism and less prime-time presidential drama on cable TV.