Lessons from DnD: dealing with a media rogue.

I desperately wanted this blog to having some kind of gaming reference but couldn’t think of anything relevant. Fortunately I think I can squeeze some other references is.

I’ve been listening to Keepin’ It 1600 lately. I regrettably didn’t listen to it during the election but given its leanings that’s probably a good thing. I consume a lot of liberal-leaning media that is only somewhat balanced by the Wall Street Journal and National Review, but I digress.

Today’s podcast had Guardian writer Sabrina Siddiqui on to discuss how the press should cover Donald Trump. This is something I have been mulling over a bit. There were three questions, I think, raised in this conversation:

  1. How do you deal with a candidate who has effectively used the 24 hour media cycle to avoid scrutiny;
  2. When is it appropriate for the press to use terms it had previously considered “loaded” (e.g., words like “lie,” “racist,” etc);
  3. How, if at all, do we draw the line between media reporting and media investigation? What is the interplay between these two roles – do they complement or clash? Finally, how does it inform our notions of press objectivity?

I’ll focus on the first question for this post.

I don’t really play Dungeons and Dragons (“Dnd”) but I’ve played a few games that used its basic rule structure for combat/character building purposes. One quality of a rogue is his (or her) ability to evade. In this context, we’re speaking physical evasion, but let’s extrapolate to all kinds of evasion just so I can use this tortured metaphor to get my reference in (I mean they are pretty sneaky on all accounts so I think it works…)

Credit where it’s due: Donald Trump is downright masterful when it comes to using news coverage to his advantage. For those of us rooting against him, it was confounding to see scandal after scandal crop up and have none of them stick. Also, for once, these were legitimate scandals ranging from double-digit sexual assault allegations to formal investigation into his non-profit on the basis of basically using it as a conduit for personal financial gain.

Trump’s media savvy allowed him to use new scandals to drown out old scandals — that is, to evade scrutiny and consequence. In a constant stream of bad behavior, all occasions become a blur. Moreover, this behavior becomes the norm, and seems less and less outrageous as more negative behavior falls into the spotlight. Under typical circumstances, this would begin to stick as a negative narrative, but Trump successfully characterized all of the above as merely rebellion against the establishment and the very cultural sensitivities alienating his base from the rest of America. It no longer seems scandalous. It’s pedestrian. It’s just how he is. This is what we expect from Donald Trump.

It’s not what we expect from the President of the United States. This is what needs to be remembered most. Donald Trump no longer speaks solely for himself. He represents in the most literal, democratic sense all of us.

The salient question for the press is this: if Donald Trump both feeds on attention and uses it to his advantage, how do you cover him? The press’ autopsy thus far has given all indications that it is critical for them to demand a higher standard of scrutiny when it comes to Trump’s behavior – that they can’t simply take for granted a mere spotlight will get the job done. Instead, they will have to persistently read between the lines a la Farendholt’s investigative journalism and then follow through by making Trump account for sketchy behavior before he launches into something deliberately antagonistic to make us forget about what just happened.

Therein lies the tension. The primary way the press can hold Trump to his words and deeds is to rigorously shed light on all he does on said. But, in doing so, they feed his need for attention and thus his motivation for behaving outrageously in the first place. Further, his ability to dominate the news cycle is the very source of his savvy. Covering him almost weaponizes him.

My thoughts are two-fold:

First, something needs to be done about the twenty-four hour news cycle paradigm. I know this is vague. I’m still brainstorming myself and, in a lot of ways, I’m a lot better at asking questions to isolate the problem than stumbling upon the concrete solution.

Here, I’m not saying that the literal time frame of 24 hours is problematic. What I am saying is it creates this vacuum for news coverage for news coverage sake. Trump was able to dominate the news cycle because there was no need to use time judiciously or to meaningfully prioritize. The media realty is infinite in this respect, and we need to revisit the utility of this from a journalistic integrity point of view.

The media has to become better practiced at picking its fights and ensuring that it can diligently review “real” news stories rather than taking a skin deep approach to fill a mile wide space. News cycle shouldn’t literally mean that you one-and-done a story about a person and then immediately discard it when that same person pops up in another story, especially when this person is the president and will likely saturate the media by virtue of the office he holds.

Second, we need to dive deeper into what a real news story is and what is a feint. The best way I can think to describe a feint has to do with both timing and what is probative. As an example, Donald Trump’s press conference turned hotel promotion is a feint. I don’t blame the media for its original coverage necessarily, though the timing and oddly organized theatrical format may have been clues. I do blame them for such extensive coverage of the meta-outrage, i.e., the audacity of this guy who has done many an outrageous thing to do yet another outrageous thing, thus totally ignoring the fact that Donald Trump (1) headed the birther movement; (2) acknowledged his role, and; (3) is running for president despite all of the above.

If something starts making headlines shortly after a critical story, this should be a big clue. Whether or not it’s meaningful is harder to parse. My first instinct is to ask ourselves if it fits in with a pattern of negative behavior. This makes it more likely that it’s something Donald Trump actually believes. Another possible factor is to measure by impact, i.e., whether it’s something he’s saying or a policy he is proposing. The latter has long-term consequences and involves multiple parties. It will have a measurable impact in his polling, something to which I do think Trump will remain sensitive. Anything is possible with him but I think a good starting place is to make the arms length fair assumption that he is not as savvy a politician as an entertainer and will defer to more comfortable zones like an off-the-cuff public mic comment than something that requires formal ratification.

Only time and practice will ultimately dictate how we can make a distinction between fact and feint. It will be pivotal to start paying attention to these things and create a rough taxonomy of Trump stories. Denying him the ability to manipulate and monopolize the TV screens and newspapers will be step one in denying him the tools that allowed him to bypass so many informal checks and scrutiny throughout the election.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s