How the media can negotiate with Donald Trump

One of the more frustrating underlying issues of the 2016 election campaign is how Donald Trump has been playing most of the mass media like a cheap violin. He verbally abuses them on almost a daily basis in his campaign rallies, even going so far as to mock one journalist with a physical handicap. He arbitrarily and capriciously decides who gets press credentials and who does not, and, most recently, he claims to be holding a press conference which turns out to be a formal public statement occurring after the journalists are expected to sit through an infomercial for the press conference venue, which just happens to be owned by one of Trump’s companies. (To their credit, the media collectively refused, perhaps for the first time, to go along with that particular piece of weapons-grade bullshit).
In the UK we have a term for this behavior pathology. It is called “taking the piss”.
Donald Trump’s strategy (if you can call it that) is simple to understand. Since he despises the mass media, because they have the power to point out his lying, dissembling and general level of BS, he is going to give them the run-around, humiliate and embarrass them at every opportunity, and generally treat them like something he would normally scrape off the bottom of his shoe. The objective is, simply, to render them irrelevant, so that he can continue to hold rallies and utter nonsense in a resonant well-modulated voice. His campaign is not based on winning over the media, followed by a ground game to get out the vote, as most campaigns set out to do. He intends to bypass nearly all of the normal and accepted approaches to winning elections, and win the job of POTUS by direct appeal to an angry and highly motivated base which may be unrepresentative of the modern USA, but which is going to Push the Button for him without fail.
The problem for the mass media is a rock-meet-hard-place one. As they see it, if they refuse to engage with Trump, his high percentage of lies and bullshit go unreported and unchallenged to a wider audience. However, if they attempt to engage with him, he seems to be able to treat them like dirt and there is no negative consequence for him. Most of his supporters also hate the mass media, who they consider to be biased, so for him there is no current downside to treating the media this way.
This article by Tom Scocca departs from the usual agonizing over “should we be tougher on Trump?” to point out that the underlying relationship between Donald Trump and the media is really based on negotiation. The media decides most of the time what questions to ask Donald Trump in interviews and press conferences, and, as Scocca points out, right now the question of when Donald Trump will release his tax returns is one that the media refuses to use as a negotiating card with Trump. Politicians need publicity like you and I need oxygen, and the media, no matter how much Trump may despise them, provide him with most of his publicity oxygen. Even if he holds 2 rallies a day for the rest of the campaign, he can at most reach 50,000 people directly a day. He can reach 10 million easily in a TV interview. The math is not even close.
Scocca’s view is that the media needs to be consistently and persistently demanding that Trump release his tax returns as it’s #1 question, and should consistently remind viewers and listeners that Trump will not do that, unlike Hillary Clinton. His view is that my sticking to that question and refusing to tolerate dissembling and BS answers, the media will be taking a negotiating position (“You can refuse to release your tax returns, in which case that is all you will hear questions about, or you can release them, in which case we will move to the next question”).
Would an approach like this work? Well, if the media took lessons from Jeremy Paxman, they might stand a chance.
UPDATE – Given that Donald Trump apparently promised to donate $5m to charity if Barack Obama was born in the USA, and Mark Cuban has offered Trump $10m to debate him for 4 hours on policy, the media can always add those two questions to the one about tax returns.


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