How the Media Produces Trump TV
Trump obsesses over cable news not as viewer but as co-producer — watching, learning, and getting better every day

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 17 June 2019

It’s easy to interpret Trump’s total domination of mainstream news media as the first true win for digital propaganda. For good reason: the fake news on Facebook, the weaponized memes of Cambridge Analytica, and the President’s own Twitter barrages appear to be eclipsing the fact-based reporting of mainstream journalists. But it’s not those messages themselves — especially not in their context online — that shape the narratives we use to understand our world; it’s the way they are broadcast through traditional media like print, radio and, most importantly, television.

Much has been made of whether Trump has truly given up his previous job of running the Trump Organization. But the more important moonlighting involves another of his careers: that of reality television star and producer. It’s how he made the majority of his money, how he crafted his mythological origin story as a self-made billionaire, and how he controls the political narrative today. As long as television news journalists continue to submit to the logic of reality TV, Trump will remain in control of our national narrative, and likely the country as well.

Reality TV writers generate drama in two indirect but equally powerful ways. First, they predetermine reality with a high-concept setup. Put 10 people on an island and let them compete until only one is left. Let 12 young women compete for the affections of a millionaire, and only tell them at the end that he’s really a working-class plumber. Such situations are devised to maximize competition, sensationalism, and — ultimately — humiliation.

Trump created just such a setup for his infamous 2017 televised cabinet meeting, which he opened by asking his staff to describe their feelings about him. They understood the rules of this game show, and showered him with enough praise to make even a cult leader blush. Or consider Trump’s rallies, where the television cameras are placed in a conspicuously penned-in area in the middle of the crowd, while the president berates and goads them. For years, cable news carried his rallies live, until they decided they could make more money with other programming.

But the more traditional setup employed by Trump’s predecessors — the regular press conference — has been largely abandoned, presumably because, despite trying to cast the press corps himself, he never managed to get the kind of footage he was looking for.

Of course, the setup is only part of how reality TV producers shape a narrative. Most of the black magic happens in the editing suite. The footage is real, or real enough, so it lends an air of authenticity to the stories, which are carefully constructed fictions. All editors know of the famous “Kuleshov effect,” by which unrelated scenes can be spliced together to change their meaning. The shots may be genuine, but the reality they convey is entirely up to the editor.

But the editor’s power is not absolute, and Trump knows it. By supplying the raw materials — footage, incendiary quotes, and lots and lots of tweets — then leaving it to the supposedly free press to arrange it all as they see fit, he can be reliably assured of the result he’s seeking. As long as the television networks passively continue to broadcast the things he recounts, labels he creates, and factoids he tweets, they are assembling a reality show on his behalf. Trump doesn’t even need final cut for his messaging to come through.

In fact, once we recognize that he exerts most of his influence through his skill as a reality TV producer, his political choices begin to make much more sense. Recently, for example, Trump authorized his Attorney General William Barr to selectively release classified information about U.S. intelligence operations. His stated objective is to construct a narrative of treason against James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and others even “higher up.” This has nothing to do with researching what happened and conveying truth to the American public. Rather, as editor in chief of our news media’s reality show, he simply releases whichever details can be juxtaposed to tell the story he wants to convey.

Likewise, in the style of Real Housewives’ editors manipulating footage in order to make minor disagreements appear to be all-out catfights, Trump’s amateur production minions slowed down some Nancy Pelosi video to make her appear drunk or senile. Perfect content for Giuliani’s Twitter feed. The President then followed up with another video made to look like Pelosi had stammered through a press conference, serving as evidence for his claim that Pelosi is “losing it.”

Trump, the producer, often gets plausible deniability. He didn’t say those things — he just retweeted them. It’s the press who are telling the story Trump is crafting, as meticulously and deliberately as he did on The Apprentice. It may be comforting, on one level, to think of Trump as some sort of feckless old clown — as he is portrayed on Stephen Colbert’s satirical Our Cartoon President — sitting glued to Fox News and CNN with a Big Mac in one hand and the remote in the other. But he is not a passive viewer. Far from it. He’s watching as a true professional might: He’s studying how his every move, tweet, and utterance, and those of his staff members, percolates through the various news executives and emerges as content. And he’s fine-tuning his approach accordingly. When he watches TV, he’s doing his job as he has defined it — and he’s very good at it.

Trump’s supporters — both within his administration and out on the internet — are really his production and distribution team. But at least that’s the job they signed up for. The fourth estate has no excuse for relinquishing editorial control over their programming, and passively broadcasting the administration’s perversions of reality. Thanks to Trump, they are now intentionally profiting — bigly — at the direct expense of their audience’s perception and understanding of the world.

No matter the New York Times’ justifications to itself, a table listing Trump’s favorite insults for each of the Democratic candidates is not “news fit to print.” The recent piece went on to studiously document and link to the first time each insult was used, in the manner of a fan Wiki, both fetishizing the name-calling and further saddling the most policy-driven candidate with a Native American slur.

Meanwhile, in a simulation of “access,” CNN can’t help but book a right-wing publisher and Trump golf buddy Newsmax Media CEO Chris Ruddy as a guest on Chris Cuomo’s evening broadcast — on the basis that he spoke with Trump. After the appearance, Trump had Ruddy leak that he and Melania enjoyed his performance on the show — as if to underscore the fact that he is both casting and scripting CNN’s main primetime broadcast. CNN was pwned.

These outlets don’t even have the excuse that whatever Trump does, no matter how crass, manipulative, false, or propagandistic, is still “news.” It’s not news at all. Trump has been insulting people, inventing facts, and instigating conspiracy theories for decades now. Journalists can amplify this messaging on TV, or not. Let him tweet into the ether. For however digital we think we are, very little that happens on the internet that the majority of Americans really notice if it’s not captured and amplified on TV. And just because it happened on the internet doesn’t mean it’s newsworthy.

As a fellow journalist in the reality wars, I don’t mean to scold anyone in the beleaguered and vilified press. I am writing in solidarity, looking at some of my fallen peers and shouting “Soldiers down!” These journalists have fallen prey to the Trump effect. They are complicit in something they can’t see anymore. They’ve allowed Trump to turn the majority of the news media into one big Page Six — the tabloid gossip page through which Trump learned public relations back in the 1980s. They’ve come to accept the idea that “balanced” journalism somehow means giving equal time to the genuine and the fake, reality and reality TV. They still haven’t figured out (perhaps because they are incentivized not to) that spending time and ink invalidating Trump’s claims or condemning his insults simply repeats and spreads them.

Today’s journalists, and TV journalists in particular, must decide which Editor in Chief to listen to. Will they continue to chase Trump’s droppings, assemble them into narratives, and broadcast them to the world? Or are they ready to relegate these antics to the tabloids and report on what’s actually happening instead. No hand-wringing over the latest lie, racist slur, misrepresentation of policy, or “behind the scenes” gaffe. They’re all just part of the show.