When Trump wins, so does the media
Ratings, traffic, and book sales all get a boost from a Trump victory
Slow Boring launched in the wake of the 2020 election, but I began making my plans for the site well before. And while I thought Joe Biden would probably win, I wasn’t certain.
So I was nervous on Election Day, mostly because I care about the future of the country, but also because I care about my career and my family, and I thought a second Trump administration would be bad for my new project. Not that Trump winning would invalidate my ideas — in my opinion that would have, if anything, strengthened the case for them — but I don’t think that’s how it would have been interpreted. And I don’t think Trump being in the White House is very good for audience interest in my work.
The two best journalistic niches during Trump’s presidency were scoopy reporting, with the goal of obtaining new anecdotes that re-confirmed people’s belief that the orange man is bad (we recently had a good one of these about Trump’s visceral disgust at the sight of disabled veterans), and columns that elegantly restated liberals’ visceral disgust with Trump. These are totally fine styles of journalism; I’ve consumed a lot of both and tried my hand at some of the latter, but neither happens to be my personal forte. In terms of my own sense of professional fulfillment, the best parts of the Trump years were the relatively “normal” ones covering ACA repeal and TCJA. I think I’m good at that kind of thing, and while I think it would be bad for America if Nikki Haley or Mike Pence beat Joe Biden, I do think those outcomes would be fine for me since they would run businesslike administrations focused on implementing right-wing policy, and I could write about that.
For most people in the media, though, the incentives go the other way.
The Trump administration was a ratings bonanza. Trump sold newspaper subscriptions and he drove clicks. Every well-sourced reporter in Washington got a great book deal to write about Trump-era politics. Trump’s administration was such a constant whirl of chaos that there were always fun leaks and crazy anecdotes emerging. You could get Republican members of Congress to say the wildest things about the incumbent president. I think very few journalists voted for Trump or believed that his ideas and policies were good for the country. But it was, objectively, a good time professionally for a lot of journalists, and it was definitely good for the companies that employed them. As Leslie Moonves said back in 2016, “It May Not Be Good for America, but It’s Damn Good for CBS.”
And I think that’s a relevant frame for understanding media coverage of the coming Biden-Trump fight.
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