Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich likes to say reporters are idiots.
“The same idiots that failed to understand that Trump was going to win the nomination, then failed to understand that Trump was going to win the general election, are now commenting on Trump’s Cabinet,” he told a crowd at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, to cheers and applause Tuesday in a speech about the principles of Trumpism.
And what these “idiot” reporters fundamentally don’t understand about Donald Trump, Gingrich said, is that the president-elect knows how to play them.
“I have had a theory going back to Reagan that you have to have rabbits that the media will chase, or they will invent their own,” Gingrich said.
Trump knows how to give the media rabbits. During his campaign, he did it with his erratic tweets and controversial policy proposals, using personal attacks on anyone from “low-energy” Jeb Bush to the bereaved father of a Muslim American Army captain. Trump’s latest rabbits are his victory tour, his attacks on Saturday Night Live, and his meeting with Kanye West.
“It’s not a function of personality,” Gingrich said of Trump’s counterpunches. Rather, he said, it’s a skill you learn navigating the harsh world of New York media. “You hit back as fast as you can so you are in the next edition.”
While it should be said that Trump’s conduct could also be a testament to his temperament, Gingrich is articulating one of Trump’s greatest skills: his ability to use the media to amplify his movement.
The best example of this was the Florida primary, Gingrich said, recounting the press event Trump used to advertise his own products.
“He’s selling Trump wine, Trump water, Trump steaks … he was testing the networks,” Gingrich said. “I have never seen this before in American history. Hillary starts to speak, and not a single network covers her, because they all understand that in the age of the clicker, everyone will leave because they want to see what else would he bring on. What are you gonna get? A camel? Who knows what he is going to do next.”
To be fair, the news media, for the most part, has become increasingly aware of the role it played in the election. And surely, if you ask any non-Trump political operatives about their performance, they will tell you that not being Trump was an inherent disadvantage when it came to getting airtime.
What Gingrich is highlighting, however, is a serious and real point of reflection for the media.
The media has had a hard time covering Donald Trump
Trump has posed a unique challenge for the media. How do you write about speeches filled with wild and vague insinuations and sometimes flat-out lies? How do you report on Trump’s baseless statements without just giving them a wider audience? What’s the responsible way to fact-check Donald Trump? Are the tweets of a main Republican candidate — now president-elect — however erratic in substance, newsworthy?
Some would argue that you simply don’t cover some of it. Others say you can’t ignore a phenomenon clearly sweeping the nation; journalists must keep a record. But that’s problematic too, said Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, at an event at Harvard earlier this month.
“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” Lewandowski said. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
This is the same argument Trump ally Peter Thiel made. Trump’s way of manipulating the media had caused a dilemma with journalists; if baseless allegations about Hillary Clinton’s health — or emails — have become a central talking point of a presidential campaign, it’s hard to ignore it, no matter how much it plays into Trump’s strategy.
Trump, his campaign managers, and strategists confirmed their belief that free coverage helped Trump to victory. Trump might have been unpredictable, but the media was predictable: CNN capitalized on the public’s insatiable appetite for all things Trump, and Trump’s campaign banked on the coverage.
This certainly wasn’t the only factor behind Trump’s rise, and it’s important to note that the information era also makes it easier for people to ignore the information that does not support their beliefs.
But broadcast networks are still airing empty Trump stages — and Trump knows it.