I've had this sinking feeling for years.
It started at the first Trump event I ever covered (Laredo, Texas, summer of 2015) and it's persisted ever since. It's a feeling that our president understands and uses the media in a frighteningly canny way, and that we in the media still haven't gotten wise to that, to him.
Attention is his oxygen. We give him far too much of it.
I wrote about that feeling, and what to do about it, for Rolling Stone.
Our Earned Media President
As Donald Trump enters his third year in office, the political press is still playing his game — and he’s still winning
Rolling Stone | November 28, 2018
“May I say something you’re not going to like? I think the press loves him. All day on TV — and I don’t even watch TV, except sports. But he says somebody had a horse face — all day we hear about that. We hear about Kanye West, all day. You just give him all day!”
— Nancy Pelosi, November 19th, 2018
WASHINGTON — If the Jim-Acosta-as-First-Amendment-hero subplot is the only thing we remember about President Trump’s uniquely bizarre, incoherent and at times surreal post-midterm-election press conference, well, that’s a shame.
There was another moment from that Trumpian spectacle that was just as revealing and damning as the Acosta press-pass scandal, one that was soon swept under the wave of the next news cycle. Future historians should study this moment as they make sense of the Trump years. Here it is, verbatim, taken from the 17,000-word transcript of the press conference:
Mr. President, first off, I personally think it’s very good to have you here because a free press and this type of engagement —
THE PRESIDENT: I do, too. Actually? I do, too.
Yes. It’s vital to democracy.
THE PRESIDENT: It’s called “earned media.” It’s worth billions. Go ahead.
“Earned media” is a fancy way of saying free publicity. It’s when major TV networks, newspapers, magazines and other outlets cover you instead of you paying them to get your message out. If the past two-and-a-half years have taught us anything, it’s that Trump is a master of earned media. By one count, he received $5.6 billion of it during the 2016 campaign — more than the combined spending of every other candidate who ran for president that year.
Trump gets the media. He may be one of the most ill-suited, unprepared and temperamentally unfit individuals to ever serve as president. But he knows what makes the media run, what drives ratings and what gets clicks. After all, the guy was born, raised and cut his teeth in the heyday of the New York media wars. When it comes to dealing with journalists, courting and cajoling, flattering and outright lying to them, he’s been at this game for nearly half a century.
Yet we, in the media, still haven’t figured him out.