At a time of media soul searching over the rise of Donald Trump, longtime media watcher and columnist Michael Wolff is perhaps the most unsparing in his assessment.
“Everything,” he said on this week’s episode of the Digiday Podcast when asked what the media got wrong about Trump. “Literally everything. I can’t think of another instance in which the media was so off in its predictions, evaluations and the ways in which it hedged its bets. Every person and every outlet, the fundamental assumption was not only was Donald Trump unfit to be president but that he would never be president. If the American people didn’t stop him from being president, the media would stop him with their opprobrium and their collective decision he couldn’t be.”
Below, in his own words, edited slightly for clarity, are highlights from the conversation with Wolff, who profiled Donald Trump in June and last week published the first interview with top Trump advisor Steve Bannon.
Trump masterfully plays the media
“It’s extraordinary. In effect, the Trump issue was the media itself. In these huge rallies, not only signaling out reporters but chants that CNN sucks. That’s what he ran against. The media creates Donald Trump and then he turns and runs against it. He catches them unaware and does the thing they said he could never do, which is win.
“So far, the media reaction has been complete defensiveness. The New York Times has said it’s going to re-evaluate or some baloney, but I don’t think anyone is doing that. My impression is they’re hunkering down and maintaining this idea that Trump is a threat. One of the things is they are taking the bait. He tweets and they go crazy. In a more rational world, the response might be that he tweets so everybody let’s block him. What’s going on is he tweets and it dominates the news cycle, a castoff tweet or something that he may be doing precisely to dominate the news cycle.
“You had Trump the public figure as inviting conflict, a completely pugnacious personality, everywhere he went he was causing a kind of chaos. It’s clear what the guy most wants is to be liked. If not docile, he was certainly charming [in person], but even more the thing that came through is there was no inherent conflict here. It was about, I want you to like me. The resentments are not on the surface with Trump. What works for him is our resentment of him. It’s not his resentment of us so much as our resentment of him. The Trump people, it makes them stand up in cheer. Our anti-Trumpism makes the Trump people cheer his name.”
Trump is not a unique threat, at least at this point
“Undoubtedly he believes some of [his campaign statements] but doesn’t believe other parts. Is he different from any other politician? I’m not sure. There’s a whole developing vocabulary from the media side that he’s a threat. I suppose any politician, any president can potentially be a threat. He’s no different from anyone else. He says things that are different, and you could construe he’s a bigger threat. But a threat to what, or a threat by what means?
“We are not in a crisis situation. The nation is not at risk. We are just in a new and different political moment, which I believe the democracy, the structure of the country can accommodate.”
Media’s failing at the basics
“I think what’s required is for the media to do its job. I feel deeply the media hasn’t done its job. It’s abdicated its responsibility, has lost itself somewhere. Right now it’s an interesting moment where the media looks at Donald Trump as a threat instead of a story, possibly the biggest story of our time. Certainly a story that needs to be told in rather conventional ways. Who are these people, what motivates them, where are they from, where are they going — just basic storytelling.
“I thought these people have won an election, so now is the time to go in and say who are you and what do you think. We are not in an oppositional moment right now; that has passed. I actually asked very few questions. I said tell me who you are. He talked and I took notes. Yes, you do want to be stenographers. That’s a very significant piece of journalism. We don’t want to hear [the reporter]. Write it down. You’re there to literally convey what someone in power says, and you bring it to people who want to know. Journalism is now a profession filled with people who are not journalists. They’re all under 25, talking to people under the age of 25. Let me send the message: stenographer is what you’re supposed to be.
“[The move against normalizing Trump actions and language] are just institutional biases. This is formally saying we are biased and want to be biased, we are judge and jury. It obviates the fact that the country has elected the people. That’s it. It is normal. They get to be normal. There are always differences. Everybody comes to power in a different way with a different approach. That’s not to say this is right or wrong. I’m sure this administration, like all administrations, will end in its version of tears. But for the moment they have been elected, they are coming to power, they are what they are. For the moment, the proper response is to stand back, neither approve and disapprove, and wait and see.”