Donald Trump said “Jump,” and TV news said “How high?”
It happened again Friday morning when the Republican presidential candidate held the media hostage for nearly an hour after promising a major news announcement.
“Breaking News: Trump To Make ‘Big Announcement’ on Birther Issue,” said the banner on MSNBC.
“Soon: Trump To Address Birther Issue,” said CNN’s banner. Fox News was, of course, along for the ride.
While they waited, and waited, Trump provided what amounted to a campaign infomercial and shamelessly promoted his new Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington.
When it was over, and he had said the absurdly obvious — that he now accepts that President Obama was born in the United States — there was, at least, some long overdue indignation.
“We got played again,” CNN’s John King said on the air. And that was as obvious as the announcement itself.
Trump as recently as Thursday night had declined to put to rest his long history of promoting the false idea that the country’s first African American president was not born here. Based on implausible conspiracy theories, that idea was never more than a thinly veiled appeal to racism, intended to delegitimize Obama’s right to hold the highest office. And yet, reporters turned out in droves, live cameras at the ready.
Dan Gillmor, a media scholar at Arizona State University, on Twitter called this episode “universal sewer dwelling” for cable news. By phone afterward, he said that “no journalist with a shred of integrity would have covered it.”
Saying the press got played, he said, is an understatement.
“This is a campaign and a candidate that completely understands how the press works — or doesn’t work — and exploits the blatant weaknesses of political journalism.”
Print journalists were in attendance, too, but it was live TV that played into Trump’s hands.
“CNN and others were pulled into the whole three-ring circus — I’ve never seen anything as crass and disingenuous,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief who is now the director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
Sesno called it “breathtaking” — and that was no compliment. Even after acknowledging that, as he put it, “President Obama was born in the United States. Period,” Trump got in his shots at his rival, falsely alleging that Hillary Clinton had started the birther controversy. Fact checkers, including The Washington Post’s, have repeatedly disproved this claim.
Sesno told me that he sees a possible bright spot within the mess: Not only King, but CNN’s Jake Tapper and Gloria Borger denounced the way Trump had played the media. And they flatly denounced Trump’s notion that Clinton started the birther rumors.
“I’d like to think this could be a turning point,” Sesno said. “Of course, we’ve been here before, and that hasn’t happened.”
Meanwhile, as if to illustrate in caricature the differences in the candidates’ styles — and relative success with the media — the Democratic nominee was doing something unexciting, substantial and workmanlike: addressing the Black Women’s Agenda Symposium, talking about the economic challenges faced by women of color.
It got, of course, only a fraction of the media’s attention.
With public trust in the media at an abysmal low, it’s time — long past time — for TV news outlets to stop playing the stooge for Trump. The paradox, of course, is that Trump expresses nothing but contempt for the very people in the media who have made his candidacy viable.
Even if the turning point comes far too late, when billions of dollars of free media have promoted a candidacy like never before, it must come now.
Indignation in the immediate moment should turn to soul-searching in the boardroom and the newsroom.
This can’t happen again.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan