“How Trump and the Media Became as Inseparable as P.T. Barnum and the Circus.”

From a very good review, by David Bromwich, of two booksAudience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America, by James Poniewozik, and Hate Inc: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, by Matt Taibbi—in the New York Review of Books.

The opening grafs about Audience of One:

James Poniewozik is the chief television critic of The New York Times, and his new book, Audience of One, tells a double story: the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of television. Poniewozik wants to show us that TV has everything to do with the formation of Trump’s character—his manners, his place in the commercial culture, his ability to track and manipulate popular sentiment and opinion. It seems a reasonable hypothesis. How good is the evidence?

Trump entered the presidency, says Poniewozik, backed by “a four-decades-long TV performance.” That is not quite true. During the first two of those decades, Trump was mainly a creature of the tabloids and celebrity magazines; occasional appearances on TV may have helped, but were not the main event. Television facilitated his passage from tabloids to politics, with a starring role in The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice—a survivor show that looked like a quiz show. All the while, of course, Trump was famous as a real estate billionaire in the post-Reagan era when “lifestyles of the rich and famous” were a favorite subject. Anyway, TV-and-Trump is the argument here. They are said to march together more inevitably than, say, Reagan and movies or FDR and radio. We are meant to acknowledge a pairing as inseparable as P.T. Barnum and the circus.

The opening grafs of the review of Hate, Inc.:

When Poniewozik writes of “the media culture,” it isn’t clear whether he counts under that description his own newspaper or any other representative of the left-liberal corporate media. For the Rolling Stone political commentator Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, all the news media—with a few online exceptions—are part of a single poisonous and self-reinforcing information ecosystem. Taibbi thinks the Times is blamable for distorted political coverage, over the last three years, of a sort that renders it a nearer neighbor of Fox News than its most loyal readers could possibly imagine. Since Hate Inc. is largely put together from columns of that period—the same is true, to a lesser extent, of Audience of One—we get a view of Taibbi’s discontents with the media as they took root and ramified.

An early and symptomatic document of the Trump media environment, he suggests, was a Times column by Jim Rutenberg, published in the summer of 2016. Rutenberg argued that reporters had a civic duty to repel the unique threat of a Trump presidency; the press should now be “true to the facts…in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.” Did this mean a surer method had emerged for standing up to history’s judgment than the persistent and energetic pursuit of the truth? Isn’t that what reporters have always cared about and worked to exemplify? Apparently, something else was now demanded. Each dawn of a Trump day, a reporter should waken fully conscious of the call at his or her back: Which side are you on? Anti-Trump journalism achieved an early climax of barely suppressed pathos in the Times headline Taibbi quotes from the morning after the 2016 election: DEMOCRATS, STUDENTS AND FOREIGN ALLIES FACE THE REALITY OF A TRUMP PRESIDENCY.

David Bromwich is Sterling Professor of English at Yale University.

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