Politics

How to Play the National Media, in Eight Simple Steps

Donald Trump’s birther event was a living, breathing act of media criticism.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave. September 16, 2016.
Donald Trump trolls the national media at Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

Tom Williams/Getty Images

It was about 10 minutes in, after two or three introductory speakers and an enthusiastic plug from Donald Trump for his new downtown property, that the cry of Admiral Ackbar began sounding in the core of my being. It’s a trap. I’m an extra in a bad commercial.

We were sitting in the ballroom of the new downtown property, four blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Like most of the new downtown property, the color scheme in the room relies heavily on gold, but here the camera-facing portion was dulled to an appropriately muted motif, with a blue backdrop and six American flags near the dais. About half of the ballroom was blocked off for reporters and cameras. So many cameras.

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The Trump campaign hinted to news organizations that he would be holding a press conference at his new downtown property in Washington, D.C., on Friday morning after delivering a statement. The subject was intended to be some sort of “major announcement” about his half-decade-long refusal to say that President Obama was born in the United States. This is the “issue” that catapulted Trump to the top of the preliminary 2012 Republican presidential primary polls, before he collapsed and opted not to run. He made this nonsensical, racist argument because, in his words, as recalled by former Mitt Romney personal aide Garrett Jackson, “rightwing crazies will believe it.”

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At some point in the past month, some figure in his campaign—presumably new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway—finally got him to understand that he’s no longer running in the Republican primary and needs to mitigate his active appeals to racism if he’s to recover among suburban whites. Trump has had various surrogates and campaign spokespeople aver that he believes President Obama was born in the United States, but until Friday, he was too proud to admit it himself. Friday’s event was his opportunity to fess up, whereupon the press would pepper him with follow-up questions about why he promoted the birther conspiracy in the first place, whether he really sent investigators to Hawaii to look into it and what exactly were the unbelievable things they were finding, why he was saying it Friday when he refused to say it as soon as Thursday, and most importantly, why he spent years following Obama’s longform birth certificate reveal in 2011—which a campaign statement sent Thursday evening described as the “conclusion” of the episode—still promoting the theories in interviews and on social media.

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Things went very differently. The press conference proved instead to be Trump’s troll of the media, a rick-roll—as everyone called it later—on the grand scale. It was effortlessly brought off and all it required was a manipulation of media incentives and cable news control-room politics, plus a carefully arranged use of space and taxpayer-funded security detail. You can have all your earnest thinkpieces about false balance and the like; Trump’s event on Friday was enacted media criticism.

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Here’s how you pull off such a feat, step by step.

1. Wink to news organizations that you’re finally going to eat crow on your most prominent political lie of the past six years, in the form of a press conference. They will send all of their cameras and reporters, and they will clear their broadcast schedules for the entire morning. In his Washington Post interview on Thursday,  Trump declined to admit Obama’s domestic birth, “because then everyone is going to be talking about it.” On Friday morning, Trump told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that she would have to wait for the press conference to hear the announcement. “We have to keep the suspense going,” he said.

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2. Hold the event in a ballroom where you’ve made sure to separate the press filing area from the podium by approximately 10 rows of seating for various lobbyists, operatives, supporters, and—most importantly—veterans. Rope it off. Make veterans and war heroes both the subject of and the speakers at the event, so as to discourage rude intrusions from the press corps during introductory speeches.

3. Make brief introductory comments yourself just to ensure the cameras are rolling. If the introducers had spoken from the beginning without a word from Trump, cable networks might’ve held their coverage of the event on standby until Trump had taken the microphone. By making a few remarks at the beginning before introducing a couple of supporters, Trump forced the hand of the networks, who let the feed run, surely assuming Trump would get to the meat of the matter after a few minutes. Instead, he just yammered on about his new downtown property before giving way to his compatriots.

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4. Allow veterans to sing patriotic hosannas to Trump for roughly 30 minutes, unfiltered, to cable news audiences and other networks live-streaming the event, creating what is effectively a free half-hour infomercial.

5. Now comes the important part: At some point, the networks will get hip to the ruse and decide to cut away. When they do, that’s when to jump in and give them what they were waiting for. On Friday, this happened after about a half-hour, with CNN cutting away to the studio and the anchors shamefacedly acknowledging that they’d been had. I am certain the flattering introductions would have continued straight through Election Day if the networks hadn’t pulled the plug. They did, and very soon after Trump returned to the podium and got to the point.

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6. Declare that Obama was born in the United States, only after reciting a lie about Hillary Clinton.

7. Pretend not to hear the reporters screaming from a good distance back in their cordoned-off pen. I have never seen such a hostile press reaction as what ensued when Trump concluded his remarks and began to walk out. Things had gotten feral. MSNBC’s Katy Tur was standing on her chair in the front row screaming questions.

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8. Escape to do a tour of the new downtown property with the camera crew pool, but without any producers or reporters in tow. Literally keep the reporters locked inside the ballroom until you’re safely away from them while using television cameras to record footage of your new downtown property. Use the Secret Service to bar anyone from using side doors into your new downtown property’s atrium, even though it’s now supposedly open to the public.

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Voilà. You have successfully played the national media.

It was not subtle. It was as subtle as the gold trim on the new downtown property’s urinals. This was a Trump initiative, after all. Everyone in that ballroom on Friday knew early on that we were being trolled. Afterward, the networks reportedly held an emergency conference call on which they agreed to erase the camera pool footage of the property tour, since no editorial figure had been allowed to join. It was a small measure of revenge.

Meanwhile, in the ballroom, the blue backdrop was collapsing, taking out all but one of the Old Glories in its path. Trump’s ruse was physically falling apart, but the man himself was long gone from the room.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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