Another week, another scandal in Trump’s America. Recently, the famous journalist Bob Woodward released a book called Rage about the Trump administration. Woodward rose to prominence during the Watergate scandal and his reporting played a pivotal role in taking down the Nixon presidency. With a career like that, any rational politician would approach an interview with Woodward with caution, but Trump steadfastly ignored rationality this past February. Far from avoiding Woodward, or at most providing him only short, measured, and tightly controlled interview sessions, Trump apparently gave Woodward a stunning amount of material. Woodward’s book contains excerpts from more than a dozen recorded interviews, recordings that Woodward plans to release a little bit at a time over the coming weeks. This past week’s revelation employed the classic Woodward question that led directly to Nixon’s resignation, this time applying it to Trump regarding the coronavirus: “What did he know and when did he know it?”
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Trump knew a lot about the dangers of the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic and then vigorously lied about those dangers to the American people for months. He continues to lie about the dangers even now as the death toll from the virus approaches 200,000. This kind of depravity is, of course, in line with what one would expect from Trump given all that we have seen from him over the past 4 years and the decades before he entered public office. But what is surprising is the predictability of the public response, which has been driven in part by liberal-leaning media outlets like MSNBC and more centrist networks like CNN. It seems that even now, after 4 years of nearly constant scandals, the Woodward revelations will die the same death as every other scandal the media has covered: for a week, the media has provided wall-to-wall coverage of the scandal, and by next week, or perhaps the week after, everyone will have forgotten about it and moved on to the next. One might expect that the larger media and the public, in general, would have tired of this cycle of indignation and amnesia, but alas, we seem to be addicted to it, unable to break free, moored to the conviction that scandals do still matter even though we know by now that, in reality, they do not.
As I have written several times in previous articles, scandals don’t carry enough moral force to take down presidents anymore, not because scandals themselves have changed, but because they no longer enjoy the singularity that gave them power in previous eras of American politics. In the past, presidents would avoid scandals at all costs, and when scandals did happen, they were one-off events that changed the course of history. By contrast, Trump actively courts scandals and deploys them all against the public in a constant torrential flood. With so many scandals to get worked up about, Trump can flip the script on his critics by dismissing anyone who is “upset” with him with snappy “f*** your feelings” types of ridicule and then point to the frenetic pace with which the media moves from one scandal to the next as evidence of the media’s and the Left’s commitment to vapid ‘Trump derangement syndrome:’ after all, Trump supporters ask, if these scandals actually mattered, wouldn’t the media take its time to investigate them properly instead of simply moving from one to the next in just a matter of days or even hours? (This is a catch-22 because when the public and the media do focus on a scandal for an extended length of time, as they did and continue to do with the Russia collusion scandal, Trump and his supporters turn around and accuse their critics of focusing too much on things that do not matter.)
Woodward’s book is falling prey to this dynamic. It is just one of many tell-all books about Trump and his administration that publishers released at regular intervals this summer. Just like all of the others, his book has grabbed some air time over the past week, but it will inevitably fade over the next week or two, smothered in an avalanche of future scandals that have not yet come to light.
The problem for the public is that large national media outlets rely on scandals for revenue. The tabloid-ification of journalism arose over the past two or three decades out of the fact that media outlets are incentivized by market forces to feature ever more salacious and outlandish scandals. Media outlets like CNN and Fox News run on scandals. And while Fox is only nominally a news outlet (it is much closer to being a right-wing propaganda corporation than a journalistic news corporation), CNN is at least committed to doing real journalism on paper, and sometimes actually manages to follow through. But most of the time, CNN and other such new outlets make their money by driving one breaking news scandal after the next in an effort to keep viewers’ eyes superglued to the nearest LCD screen for as long as possible. Trump, being the master of reality TV that he is, has figured out how to exploit the media’s dependence on scandals to his advantage.
The political problem for CNN and MSNBC is that Trump will always be able to use the media’s business model against itself when he needs to undercut the story of the day. When he needs to distract the public, he can easily do so by causing a scandal that the media cannot ignore without risk of losing their revenue. The most galling thing about this dynamic is that it has been in play since the very beginning of the Trump presidency, and the media has not found a workaround yet. For instance, in early 2017, when President-elect Trump needed to distract the public from the odd array of candidates for his nominations to cabinet positions, such as former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State and former Dancing With The Stars contestant Rick Perry to Energy Secretary, he held an impromptu meeting with Kanye West at his Trump Tower residence. Often, all it takes is a tweet. In this way, Trump uses one scandal to cover up another. Again, as elegant as this strategy is, the more frustrating aspect of it is its resilience. The media has been aware of it for at least 4 years and has so far made little progress in combating it, as the current example of the Woodward book shows. Here is what the New York Times had to say about this dynamic soon after Trump met with Kanye West: “In this sense, the continuing reality show that Mr. Trump creates may help protect him from deep damage by any particular scandal. As in the campaign, he makes so much news every day that few stories ever generate sustained controversy. Instead, public attention lurches from one story to the next, never quite focusing on any particular controversy. He may prefer it that way.” What the Times didn’t mention, and the honest media has so far been unable to respond to is the charge that they themselves, and in particular their business model, are part of the problem.
Some grassroots journalists have clued into this and are doing the necessary work of reinventing journalism for the Trump (and post-Trump) era, or at least playing with the experimental edge of what journalism can be in 2020. For instance, All Gas No Breaks, a self-described gonzo journalism project and YouTube channel run by Andrew Callaghan, has successfully inverted the general concept of corporate media outlets like CNN, where a standard liberal like Anderson Cooper or Erin Burnett interviews others while defending the center of what their audience considers to be ideologically normal. Instead, he offers a sort of satire of CNN: wearing exaggeratedly boring suits and intentionally expressing few if any deeply held opinions, allowing his interviewees to express themselves freely. Just like CNN, Andrew covers scandals – every single one of his interviews is a mini-scandal – and just like CNN, Andrew uses the sheer volume of these mini scandals to keep the audience watching. But unlike CNN, he satirizes himself as the interviewer, which effectively deflects Trumpian attempts to manipulate him by exploiting his business model. After all, Andrew is already not taking anything very seriously, so if one scandal builds on another, the viewer can trust that the choreography of coverage is sincere. Andrew cannot be distracted the way CNN can because his focus is the distraction itself.
While All Gas No Breaks is still the nascent project of a young independent journalist, it illustrates a way forward for larger media corporations. In an age where the world is wacky and weird, unironically playing the part of normie journalist is passé. The media must discover a way to report on bombshells like those provided by Bob Woodward without falling for Trump’s strategy of distraction and scandal saturation, and the public must do so as well. If there’s one major lesson from Bob Woodward’s book it’s that Trump is not Nixon, and the 2020s will not be like the 1970s. Woodward is a relic of a different time, and so is the current national corporate news media.