A Message for the People Who Run Cable News: You're Doing It Again. Stop It.
Plus: Why is Biden vs. Trump even close?
1. The White Bronco
You probably remember where you where during the White Bronco chase. It was June of 1994. I had finished exams and was getting my house in order for summer work. I stopped over at a friend’s apartment and my two buddies—Rob and Brandon—were glued to the TV. I watched with them for a while, but grew bored. I think I went to play tennis.
The O.J. Simpson case was the signal media evolution of our time.1 It established the template for modern broadcast news. Everything in our media world—from the treatment of Monica Lewinsky, to the 2000 recount, to the weeks of 9/11 coverage, to Trump’s 2016 campaign—is directly descended from O.J.
Hasn’t worked out great for us, has it?
I would argue that broadcast media, as much as any other factor, has driven the collapse of American political life. It changed the incentive structures for both politicians and journalists. It created a sense of manic obsessiveness in the public. And it acted as an accelerant in our ongoing polarization.2
The 2016 presidential campaign was a year-long version of the White Bronco chase with Trump as O.J.
This crazy man is running for president!
He says outrageous things at unpredictable times!
But he’s winning!
And we can’t even find people willing to defend him!3
Confronted with this perfect storm, broadcast media did what it has done since the White Bronco: It went wall-to-wall.
Instead of being interviewed, Trump was allowed to call into shows over the phone and ramble, in the hopes that he would say something scandalous.
Every Trump rally and speech was covered in full. Hell, the coverage would start hours before the rallies, with shots of an empty podium as talking heads vamped while waiting for the train wreck to start.
The net effect of this was to help Trump win the Republican nomination for president and then to win the presidency.
Yesterday, cable news followed the same script with Trump’s third arraignment. We got Trump’s plane on approach. Trump’s plane landing. The motorcade. Exterior shots of the courthouse
It’s COVID, it’s 2016, it’s Hurricane Katrina—it’s the White Bronco chase, all over again.
I am not suggesting that Trump’s arraignment shouldn’t be covered. There is a school of thought that seeks to minimize this story in the hope that depriving Trump of oxygen will make him go away. This is foolishness masquerading as prayer.
Here is my simple ask of our broadcast media overlords:
Trump’s criminal trials should not be covered as if Donald Trump is the star.
The star of the story is the rule of law.
I know: “The rule of law” doesn’t drive ratings. It doesn’t have influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers. People don’t wear rule-of-law regalia to massive rallies and fly rule-of-law flags in boat parades.
But if you don’t present the Trump trials as stories about the rule of law, then they become stories about Trump.
And this rewards him in the attention economy.
2. How to Cover the Trump Trials
Here are my do’s and don’ts for broadcast media: