If you wrote about Mike Pence getting booed by the crowd and called out from the stage at Hamilton, then you played right into Donald Trump’s tiny hands. That’s the argument my former colleague Jack Shafer made in Politico on Saturday, urging his media brethren to stop “being Trump’s Twitter fool” and ignore the president-elect’s repeated calls for the cast of the Broadway musical to apologize for its supposed rudeness.
This was a common journalistic refrain over the weekend: Hamilton is a distraction. The press should pay that theatrical dust-up no mind, and instead focus on the more-consequential Trump University settlement and Trump’s corrupt business dealings.
The premise here is that Trump is jamming the media’s circuits, purposefully crowding out matters of real import with inconsequential micro-scandals. If that’s the case, he has a strange way of going about it. A few minutes before he tweeted about Hamilton, he composed a pair of tweets about … the Trump University settlement. No doubt he composed those missives while grinning maniacally in Trump Tower, cackling to his minions that no one would ever know he’d paid $25 million to thousands of people he’d allegedly scammed. How could they? He’d hidden all of the evidence on his Twitter account!
The problem with refusing to play Donald Trump’s game is that Donald Trump isn’t always playing a game. As you read this, Trump is no doubt hatching various schemes that will make this country immeasurably worse. That doesn’t mean there’s intentionality behind everything he does, says, and types.
The media failed, again and again, during Trump’s rise to prominence and power. It’s wise for all of us in the press to have a healthy fear of perpetuating that failure. What’s unhealthy is ascribing a cunning, devious design to every petty, stupid move this rice-paper-skinned con man makes. Trump’s Twitter feed is a propaganda tool. It’s also not the worst place for journalists to look for stories. The day before he got all agitated about Hamilton, Trump tweeted about his picks for attorney general, national security adviser, and CIA director. The day before that, he posted the spurious claim that he’d saved a Ford plant from moving to Mexico. He’ll need to tweet about Hamilton at least eight more times to bury that lie.
There’s a reasonable argument to be made that Trump’s theater criticism didn’t warrant a national freakout (even if it did touch issues ranging from the First Amendment to the AIDS crisis). It also seems reasonable to say that if everyone who’d lamented that the Trump University settlement didn’t get enough coverage wrote a bunch more stories about the Trump University settlement, then there would in fact be a lot more coverage of the Trump University settlement. (Read Slate’s coverage of Trump University. It is important and Donald Trump is awful.)
The lesson of this weekend’s intramural journalistic dispute isn’t that Trump is psyching out the media with some sort of brilliant dark sorcery. It’s that he doesn’t have to do anything at this point to jam the media’s circuits. We’re plenty good at jamming our circuits ourselves.