President Trump attacks national media because he knows it plays well with his base. But he also goes after reporters and newsrooms because he knows they'll take the bait, sometimes dedicating entire days to talking about themselves. Former late-night host Jon Stewart has noticed this, and he said as much this week during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“Journalists have taken it personally,” Stewart rightly noted. “They’re personally wounded and offended by this man. He baits them and they dive in. What he’s done well, I thought, is appeal to their own narcissism, to their own ego.”
The comedian added, “They take it personally and now he’s changed the conversation to, not that his policies are silly, or not working, or any of those other things. It’s all about the fight. He’s able to tune out everything else and get people just focused on the fight. He’s going to win that fight.”
President Trump has been able to appeal to journalists’ “own narcissism” by attacking them, says Jon Stewart. “They take it personally, and now he’s changed the conversation to, not that his policies are silly or not working … it’s all about the fight.” pic.twitter.com/2N3V5NqZ6Q— Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) October 30, 2018
Stewart is exactly right.
There’s nothing national media love more than talking about national media. And Trump’s attacks serve as the perfect springboard for reporters and commentators to make the story about themselves; about how dangerous and unprecedented Trump’s attacks on the press are.
In the Trump era, a newsroom can spend entire news cycles talking about how outrageous it is that the president should demean reporters and specific news organizations. In the Trump era, there is no shortage of op-eds and news commentary comparing today’s U.S. media to the persecuted press under Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. To some writers and editors, Trump's mockery of the shoddy news coverage of his administration is basically the same thing as state-run purges of the free press.
In the Trump era, supposedly straight news reporters eat up valuable airtime waxing poetic about how important, crucial, and brave their industry is, with some going so far as to compare themselves to firefighters. In the Trump era, reporters are not above spending an entire weekend yelling at a gift shop for selling "fake news" t-shirts.
In the Trump era, the president doesn’t even have to say anything for reporters and commentators to make the news cycle into something broader about how they feel slighted and threatened by him. After a deranged gunman shot and killed four journalists and a sales assistant at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., certain journalists and commentators not working for that publication or anywhere near it actually piggybacked on that mass shooting to make the story about themselves.
Trump’s attacks on the press aren’t part of some 4D-chess master plan. The attacks aren’t Machiavellian politics. It’s nothing more complicated than a troll with a bully pulpit knowing for certain that his critics are overly sensitive, and that poking them will prompt an overreaction every single time. It's nothing more complicated than the president knowing that any invective he hurls at media will be met with hours (and sometimes days) of self-indulgent, navel-gazing news coverage featuring editorials, op-eds, and somber-faced news anchors, reporters, and commentators explaining that they are, in fact, not fake news, Mr. President!
Ex-New York Times editor Jill Abramson claimed in June that her former newsroom has a serious narcissism problem. She’s not wrong. But I’d take it a step further and say the narcissism problem is an industry-wide issue. No one is as impressed with the press as the press is with itself, and President Trump exploits that weak spot daily.