It was a real storybook ending. Or it might have been, were there any storybooks about a uniquely incompetent leader destroying a country before hitting the links in Florida.
On Wednesday, January 20, former President Donald Trump waved farewell as he boarded Air Force One to the strains of “YMCA,” a disco anthem about the pleasures of anonymous gay sex.
It wasn’t always going to be this way.
Originally, Trump had planned for his Florida flight to take him directly to a political rally where he would announce his plan to seek the presidency again in 2024. The rally would have taken place simultaneously alongside Joe Biden’s inauguration, forcing news networks to choose which event to carry. Due to the devastating fallout from inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, a politically hobbled Trump could no longer follow through with that plan.
News outlets should be glad Trump pulled the plug on his competing event, however, freeing them of having to choose what to air. In the future, members of the press will have to decide for themselves when and how much to cover Trump, and it’s absolutely critical that they choose more wisely than they have in the past.
In the world of The Simpsons, the producers of the show-within-a-show Itchy & Scratchy decide to spice things up by adding a new character, Poochie, who is improbably voiced by Homer Simpson. At one point, Homer describes where he envisions the character going and says, “Whenever Poochie’s not on screen, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochie?'”
Since 2015, this is how media outlets have treated Trump—as the hot new character shaking things up, and whom everybody wants to hear from and about at all times. Networks would report on his every move, air all of his lie-filled speeches, dissect his tweets, and, whenever he wasn’t on screen, they all seemed to ask, in so many words, “Where’s Poochie?”
“We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away,” CNN president Jeff Zucker said in 2018, one of the network’s most profitable years ever. “So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.”
Trump almost certainly wouldn’t have had the chance to dominate had Zucker and many other money-minded media figures not given him zillions in free advertising from the start of his 2016 campaign. Even as Trump sowed more and more distrust into the “fake news” fourth estate—“I do it to discredit you all . . . so that when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you”—he was able to get his many lies all the attention and headlines he craved for the length of an entire single term.
While these media outlets can never correct the mistakes they made by giving President Trump an omnipresent platform, they have a chance not to make further mistakes when it comes to Citizen Trump.
The networks started to show a little backbone recently, albeit belatedly, after Trump lost the election. Whether it was the discovery of a conscience or the fact that they could clearly see which way the political wind was blowing, several networks stopped airing a Trump speech riddled with baseless claims about election fraud on November 5, 2020. (CNN and Fox News continued to air it, surprising no one.) It was the first preview of a potential future in which the press stops treating Trump like a mighty god-king and more like an unpopular politician running rapidly out of power.
The fact that Trump no longer has access to Twitter should also help matters. The former steak salesman and president can no longer instantly seize control of the national conversation by spreading misinformation or reacting to other news in a way that’s designed to rile up his base. As he demonstrated in his chastened final week in office, without his favorite toy, he has yet to figure out how best to get his every message out into the world with the immediacy and control Twitter provided.
Throughout his presidency, the media as a whole had been his other prized megaphone—dutifully amplifying his stunts, speeches, and rallies, often without the context that they were riddled with lies. Now that Trump is no longer as technically newsworthy as he was as president, granting him this coverage will be a choice. And it will almost invariably be the wrong choice.
Ignoring him entirely isn’t an option. He’s a notorious ex-president with a massive, rabid fan base, and he will soon be on trial for impeachment in the Senate, before possibly being involved in several future litigations. Of course, he will merit some amount of coverage. But news directors and editors will have to be judicious about when and how they choose to provide it. For instance, the fact that Trump is speaking in public should never again be deemed appropriate justification of coverage in and of itself. As the riots on January 6 indelibly proved, Trump commands the attention of a violent, cult-like following who believes his every lie. Would these networks give Jim Jones televised speech time just for the sake of ratings?
I mean, they definitely shouldn’t! But I wouldn’t put it past them.
In a way, Trump’s original exit plan feels like a capsule version of the 2020 election: a referendum on whether the American public would prefer to see Biden doing presidential things or Trump trolling the libs while whipping up his supporters into a frenzy.
The people have spoken, and media outlets should honor their decision.
Absent the presidency, Donald J. Trump is now just a diminished, destructive, fringe cult leader desperate for attention. Lord help us if the media decides to give it to him again.