For a while last summer, some in the media believed (and hoped) that Donald Trump’s White House candidacy was really just one big trolling campaign. It has long since been made clear that he is serious about becoming commander in chief.
But that doesn’t mean the trolling theory was wrong. The self-proclaimed world-class businessman is a world-class mischief-maker who can hijack an entire news cycle in 140 characters or fewer.
Trump presented the latest evidence of his unsavory ability Tuesday night, when he interrupted primary and caucus voting in Arizona, Utah and Idaho (Democrats only) with this tweet about Ted Cruz’s wife:
Lyin' Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin' Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 23, 2016
The media, predictably, spiraled into a tizzy. Who would say something like that? And what’s he talking about, anyway?
It perhaps didn’t help that Cruz took the bait and fired right back.
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) March 23, 2016
This is exactly what Trump wants, of course — to be the center of attention. Sure, it’s negative attention, but when has that ever hurt him? He’s already crossed so many lines that should have doomed his candidacy that it’s hard to imagine a different outcome this time.
That’s the dilemma for the press. In any previous election, if the Republican presidential front-runner had threatened a rival’s spouse, journalists wouldn’t have had to think twice about covering the incident. They would have known that highlighting such crass behavior would force the candidate to pay an appropriate price. They would have felt — quite rightly — that they were fulfilling an obligation to inform the electorate, which, being composed of sensible and decent people, would react with disgust.
But the electorate’s reactions are completely backward in this campaign. Trump insults Mexicans and his poll numbers (in the GOP primary, at least) go up. He calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and his poll numbers go up. He says the military should torture terrorism suspects and murder their wives and children, and his poll numbers go up.
We know the pattern by now. Does that mean journalists’ obligation should change? Should we try to ignore Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric instead of reporting on it?
I don’t think so — not in most cases, anyway. As I’ve argued before, the duty of a free press is not to withhold information because journalists think voters will make wrong decisions with it. And Trump, by virtue of his position as the likely GOP nominee, is inherently newsworthy.
But it might be time to divide his remarks into two categories: those that are related to policy and those that are not. When Trump says he will deport every last undocumented immigrant living in the United States, the media have to cover the statement extensively because it’s about what he plans to do as president. There are serious questions to answer: Is the proposal realistic? What would it cost? How would it affect the economy? What would it do to America’s image?
When Trump says he will “spill the beans” on Cruz’s wife, however, the media response should be much more muffled. Not silent — you can’t just pretend he never said it or that Cruz never responded — but there’s not really substance to dissect. The sole purpose of a comment like that is to steal airtime and ink that might otherwise be devoted to issues that actually matter.
It’s a media hold-up. The press can’t avoid emptying the cash register, but it doesn’t have to open the vault.