And I don’t quite understand why. The conflicts aren’t getting any duller; in fact, they’re getting wilder by the day. The Russia inquiry in particular should be conspiracy theorists’ Hope Diamond. Not only do the Russians hack the DNC and destroy the Democratic Party’s reputation, but there’s a strong possibility that they’re conspiring with the Trump administration to control our executive branch from the inside? And right while the two countries are fighting a proxy war in Syria? And Trump is launching missiles?! I’d expect the newspapers to be bombarding readers with updates on a story this captivating. But even the liberal New York Times, one-third of Trump’s “fake news” trifecta, has pushed the Russia inquiry down into the doldrums of the second and third pages in favor of think pieces about Uber’s psychological exploitation of its drivers.
Of course it’s difficult for any person, let alone half a nation, to sustain an extreme sense of outrage. But it seems to me that we’d still be a little more… interested.
In an attempt to figure out why our fascination has waned, I looked into the competing news that’s distracting liberals’ attention from the apocalyptic phenomenon that is Trump. After months of scouring the New York Times, I’ve observed that, when it’s not investigating Uber, it focuses disjointedly on members and political elements of the Trump administration -- Gorsuch’s questionable choices during his first days on the Supreme Court, profiles of questionable Trump staffers and family members, and the questionable tax code -- without revealing much new information about Trump himself. Although the Times openly derides his policies, as it did by pairing its report on his climate change executive order with quotes and statistics about global warming, it’s still focusing on the policies rather than the man. As a result, the Times is legitimizing him, albeit unintentionally.
Slate Magazine, which has a similar readership to the Times, employs the opposite strategy -- reiterating the message “Trump is evil” to the exclusion of most other political content. There are slight variations: Trump is evil in a similar way to Hitler; Trump is evil, much like European right-wingers; Trump is evil and he’s forcing traditionally conservative American politicians toward the evil side. But because the message doesn’t change, the reader gets bored. There’s no character growth or plot development. And that’s doing a disservice to the beauty of the narrative formed by these events. The Russia situation has escalated according to the classic Hero’s Journey model (maybe a Villain’s Journey, in this case). But Slate isn’t portraying the events as an escalating series, so the reader feels no emotional attachment and stops caring.
Meanwhile, Vox is carrying out a combination of Slate’s and the Times’ methods. It publishes articles about Sean Spicer’s latest antics and Trump’s plans to cut the EPA amidst op-eds that promise elusive answers to questions like “Why can’t Trump work with Democrats?” But that answer is disappointingly obvious: “He’s too ignorant, dishonest, and ethically compromised.” Vox alternates between policy accounts that have legitimizing effects and criticisms that bring very little new to the conversation.
So how can the liberal media resume portraying the Trump presidency as what it is: the most exciting, important story of the year?
It seems to me that, as I’ve been indicating, one potential solution is writing about the story as a narrative. That would allow opinion writers to give Trump a villain arc, which would thereby create an emotional connection while also relaying the development of the plot, ultimately keeping the reader personally invested.
The New York Times itself proved that a paper can successfully use narrative to create emotional connection when it published its 2013 “Invisible Child” series. The award-winning collection of articles sympathetically used the narrative of one homeless girl, Dasani, to awaken privileged readers to the reality of homelessness in New York. And the series created real change. The city improved living conditions for more than 400 homeless children.
Even though Trump is a villain rather than a hero like Dasani, the formula still works; look at the prominence of true crime. Serial true crime exposés in the style of Truman Capote’s trailblazing In Cold Blood portray real criminals in the context of their real narratives, and have been used for half a century to draw readers’ attention to unique cases of lawbreaking. Trump’s story can be perfectly adapted to the genre. Every day, a new chapter could appear on the front page of any of the three magazines and papers I discussed, mixing the glamour of the presidency with the filth of political scandal, centering around a warped-Gatsby-esque Trump. Maybe it’s lowbrow to portray the president like a Kardashian, but that’s certainly how he presents himself. And more importantly, it attracts readers. It keeps the public informed.
Yes, it’s ridiculous that media portrayal can change whether or not Americans take an interest in their president. But that seems to be what’s happening. As the coverage of the Trump narrative has plateaued, so has public concern, even though the narrative itself continues to build. So please, liberal media: write about Trump in a style that’s as captivating as the president himself.