How it Started, How it Ended: Looking Back at the Beginning of Trump and the Media

 

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This piece originally appeared in the Fourth Watch newsletter.

There’s a popular meme on social media “how it started/how it’s going.” It’s usually not going particularly well, in the pandemic year we just went through. Well the Trump Era has come and, as of last week, gone. But before we say goodbye, I thought it was important to look at “how it started” – and see what we can learn from it.

This weekend I watched more than a dozen interviews Donald Trump gave to CNN and MSNBC between the day he announced his candidacy in 2015 through the convention in 2016 when he officially became the GOP nominee. It was just a small sampling — he was on those networks all the time! — but it’s representative, and fascinating. We can’t forget how the relationship between Trump and the media started. I know news consumers haven’t.

For CNN, I focused on interviews Trump gave to Don Lemon and Anderson Cooper. It’s important to note that the interviews were not cakewalks — they weren’t softballs, necessarily. Lemon pressed Trump on Islamic terrorism, and his past comments about it. Cooper tried to lock down Trump on an answer regarding the specifics of his immigration plan.

But all the exchanges were respectful — and some were pretty incredible in retrospect. Lemon asked Trump about his tax plan, and noted, “It was actually good for Americans who tend to lower end, which can be Black and brown people.” (Trump, by the way, when pressed over and over again in all these interviews, stuck to the talking points about jobs and China and Mexico — showing a discipline he seemingly abandoned in 2020). With Cooper in one long exchange, the two talked political horserace during the primary in a way that almost seemed like Cooper was teeing up Trump to trash all his opponents one-by-one.

And oh man, the chyrons. Can you imagine something like this showing up on CNN over the past four years, as opposed to December 2015 when it first aired?

It would probably have a postscript: “(He’s Actually Racist).”

In that interview with Lemon, by the way, Lemon says something you have to watch to believe: “You’ve been very kind to me, right, introduced me to your family, you’ve been very kind to me. When people say you’re racist or homophobic or Islamophobic, that has to bother you. Or compare you to Hitler. Does that bother you?”

Little did we know then the comparisons would soon be coming from… Lemon himself.

On the MSNBC front, I focused on Katy Tur and the Trump Love Ground Zero, Morning Joe. Tur had an early (July 2015), lengthy, substantive interview with Trump. It was combative, but light. If the coverage of Donald Trump was as tough as this interview with Tur — and yet not delving into the sort of over-the-top “existential crisis” coverage we actually got — the media may have come out looking responsible during the Trump Era.

And then, there was Morning Joe. Ah yes, Morning Joe

So many to choose from, but a couple notable ones. First, here’s a lengthy phoner in which Jon Meacham (who later would work for Joe Biden this cycle) asks Trump, “What surprised you the most about being a candidate?” (Trump had “a lot of pleasant surprises” including meeting such nice members of the press!)

Then there was an in-studio interview from shortly after he announced his candidacy, which was actually quite substantive — a lot about policy, foreign and domestic. The questions were relevant and helped to inform the audience. (And Trump revealed he liked Bill Clinton the best out of Clinton, Bush 41, Bush 43 and Obama!)

This trip down memory lane is instructive. I believe that many of the people featured in these clips have a sense of guilt over their coverage of Trump during his candidacy and ascendancy, thinking there was no way he’d actually win. They feel partially responsible. I don’t think they should be so hard on themselves. They are not the reason Trump won. They don’t have nearly that much power.

Instead, this reveals something else. What we saw from these interviews was substance, not extremism. All these interviews took place after we knew who Donald Trump was. And yet, they were not “deranged” in the way so many forces of the media have become. No, what these show is precisely why trust in the media is so low. The public didn’t vote for Trump because Don Lemon gave him an easy interview in 2015. But they did lose trust in Don Lemon because of who he became after Trump won. Same goes for Joe Scarborough, and the rest.

Donald Trump didn’t change from these clips to 2021. But the media did. And the public knows.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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