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General News    H3'ed 3/27/18

Tomgram: Engelhardt, The White Ford Bronco Presidency

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Big Brother Isn't Watching You
You're Watching Him!
By Tom Engelhardt

A record? Come on! Don't minimize what's happening. It's far too unique, too unprecedented even to be classified as "historic." Call it mega-historic, if you wish. Never from Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar to Soviet despot Joseph Stalin, from the Sun King Louis the XIV to President Ronald Reagan, from George Washington to Barack Obama, has anyone -- star, icon, personality, president, autocrat, emperor -- been covered in anything like this fashion.

In our American world, the only comparison might be to a few days of media coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan or, in more recent times, a terror attack like the one in San Bernardino. Keep in mind, though, that such coverage has been going on for more than two and a half years now. So here's another possible point of comparison, though it only lasted a couple of hours almost a quarter of a century ago. In fact, it may be the most appropriate comparison of all in a landscape in which shrinking media outlets have been scrambling to glue eyeballs to page or screen in an otherwise dazzling landscape of distraction. Think of Donald Trump's White House sojourn so far as our first white Ford Bronco presidency.

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Imagine that, in June 2015, The Donald hadn't swept down that Trump Tower escalator into the presidential race to the sounds of Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," but had instead slipped behind the wheel of O.J. Simpson's infamous white Ford Bronco and headed off on the nearest highway, the one leading directly into all our brains. The two hours that Simpson spent armed in that vehicle in 1994, four days after the murder of his wife, with the police trailing him and TV news helicopters hovering overhead, would prove to be our first experience of the reality TV version of the "news" in which we're now immersed. If you remember, it seemed to unfold in something like slow motion as roadside crowds turned out to cheer the "Juice" on. It would essentially be two hours of nothing whatsoever that nonetheless seemed to supersede everything else on Earth, two hours during which Americans ordered record amounts of home-delivered pizza, while watching traffic flowing on a highway to nowhere. In the process, a vision of mayhem that might otherwise have passed for boredom was etched permanently into the media's DNA.

Think of Donald Trump as the O.J. Simpson of our moment and those hours on that highway as a preview of what media life (which, with the arrival of the handheld screen, has become more or less all life) turned out to be. Think of Donald Trump's presidential run and now presidency as a never-ending white Ford Bronco ride, and if you accept that, all that remains to be asked is who was murdered (democracy?) and did he do it?

All Trump All the Time

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Here, in my opinion, may be the strangest thing of all. Who doesn't sense just how unprecedented the media spectacle of our moment is? Every single day is a new Trump dawn, a new firing or appointment at the White House, a new tweet storm, a new outrageous statement or policy, a new insult, a new lie or misstatement, a new bit of news about Stormy Daniels or other women who -- your choice -- had affairs with, were groped by, defamed by, or silenced by him, and so on down an endlessly repetitive list of what has become "the news" more or less 24/7 or perhaps more accurately 24/365 (with not a holiday in sight).

Who wouldn't agree with that? And yet have you noticed how little such coverage is itself actually covered? At least during the election campaign you could get some overview numbers on the blitz of attention the media was giving candidate Trump. It was regularly said, for instance, that he had gotten $5 billion in free advertising in those endless months in which his face, rants, tweets, nicknames, his... well, you name it... was eternally front and center in our media lives.

Post-election, nothing has really changed and yet when was the last time you saw a mainstream news article on such an unprecedented phenomenon? When did anyone front page the fact that no human being in history has ever been covered in this fashion, a fashion that gives the very word "cover" a grim new meaning?

I mean I'm just one guy. My resources are slim. I have no studies commissioned on this subject and little to draw on except my own experience of everyday life. So here's the closest I can come to catching the nature of that coverage for you. I go to the gym almost every day. There's a waiting area I pass through on my route in and out of the men's locker room. On one wall is a large-screen TV. Sometimes, it's tuned to sports, but mostly it has the cable news on. Basketball games aside, it really doesn't matter what time I arrive, or whether it's MSNBC, CNN, or even on the rarest of occasions (this is New York City, after all!) Fox News, here's what's always the same: on screen are those ever-present talking heads yakking away about, well, Donald Trump or something related to him (the Mueller investigation, the steel and aluminum or Chinese tariffs, Stormy Daniels, the president's Putin bromance... you know the list) and under them there's that crawl, that news ticker, the one that, day in, day out, is always -- and I mean always -- scrolling away on subjects about or related to Donald Trump.

Recently, I started jotting down samples from my brief moments passing through that waiting area and here's what I got: "Trump turning to key allies to fill top cabinet posts"; "Daniels's lawyer: Trump pursuing $20 million in bogus damages"; "Poll: Trump gets bump but Dems widen midterm edge"; "McCain slams Trump for congratulating Putin on reelection"; "Polygraph: porn star truthful about unprotected sex with Trump"; "Lawsuits putting new attention on Trump's past deals to silence accusers"; "Trump Russia probe lawyer John Dowd resigns"; "Trump turns to Bush-era Iraq War architect who advocated military strikes on Iran, North Korea."

And it's not just cable news. Take my hometown newspaper, the New York Times. Never -- of this I have no doubt -- has it covered a president, his doings, and those of his administration this way. As it cuts its copyediting staff (and grammatical errors become a more regular part of its news reports), it has assigned a staggering number of reporters to Donald J. Trump and his doings.

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Consider, for instance, the Times front page of March 8th. The two articles atop its right side dealt with Trump's steel and aluminum tariff decision ("More than 100 Republican lawmakers implored President Trump to drop plans...") and the firings and departures plaguing his White House ("Aides' Exodus Leaves Trump to His Instinct"). The mid-page story under a photo of a New Yorker with an umbrella in "thundersnow" was headlined "Porn Actress's Trump Claims Shift, Noisily, to Legal System." And to the left of that was a piece on a Trumpian attack on California's immigration policy ("Attorney General Jeff Sessions sued California this week for not doing enough...").

In other words, across the top of that front page, there was no world but a Trumpian one, or put another way (which is why I happened to save that front section), leaving aside the actual thundersnow storm that hit New York (page A25), there were two other "stormy" articles that day: the Stormy Daniels piece, obviously considered the far more newsworthy and front-paged, while left for page A20 was a piece on a new report suggesting that, given the impact of climate change and "land subsidence" in the San Francisco Bay Area, significantly more of that region than expected was likely to be underwater or subject to disastrous flooding in 2100.

The reportorial effort involved in all of this was striking. Two of the four front-page Trump pieces were the work of two reporters, so five reporters -- Peter Baker twice, Adam Liptak, Maggie Haberman, Jim Rutenberg, and Ana Swanson -- get credit for producing the group of them.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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