The reviews are in. And the top guy doesn’t like them.
Huddled alone at night in his mansion, he obsesses over the coverage his project is getting, and takes to social media to deny that any of the negative blowback is getting to him. He’s winning, he’s doing great, everyone loves his ideas.
No matter that most respected publications have derided almost every aspect of what he’s cobbled together; reporters, columnists, and critics have, for the most part, consistently dismissed his endeavor as a pile of poorly executed dreck, a haphazard hybrid of tired stereotypes and repugnant ideas that have been thoroughly rejected by the majority of the public.
“They just don’t get it,” he thinks. “They don’t get how edgy and bold my ideas are. My fans love me! These sneering, powerless idiots in the press are just jealous of my vision and my popularity!”
Then he storms off to have his PR team send out yet another missive about how well everything is going, and he gets the network’s numbers guy to spin the ratings in a way that makes his show sound like the biggest hit of the season.
Sound familiar? Except it’s not happening in executive suites or in writers’ rooms: It’s coming from the Oval Office. And even though the Trump administration is new, everything emanating from it, at least for many of us in the entertainment press, feels very familiar.
Donald Trump, a.k.a., the showrunner who doesn’t like what critics have to say, is an industry type that we know all too well. Those of us who’ve been at this for a while have gotten that 2 a.m. email, that tense phone call, that blistering DM on Twitter.
The difference between Trump and a disgruntled showrunner is that, for the TV type, cooler heads usually prevail in the morning. Even entry-level PR staffers know that for an executive or high-level producer to screech about a bad review just makes everybody involved look a little bit, well, “sad!”
Our president has no such checks on his behavior. His around-the-clock tweets — the chest-thumping spin, the bizarre assertions and the not-so-veiled threats — betray a lack of self-awareness that would embarrass the average adolescent.
But much as Trump would like the media to be “failing,” the epic setbacks of the past few weeks have usually emanated from his own administration — and they’ve fueled a newly energized press.
Rather than responding to his incessant bullying by laying down and cowering in fear, a critical mass of reporters and commentators have stepped up and decided to defend the traditional norms of a free press in a democratic society rather than cater to Trump’s ego. They’ve challenged his administration’s press secretary, and some have at least tried to put his emissaries through the wringer when they’ve made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows and the cable news networks.
CNN declined to book Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway on its most recent edition of “State of the Union,” and told the New York Times it was due to “serious questions about her credibility.” Reuters has instructed its reporters to cover the Trump administration the way they would any other authoritarian regime. In the through-the-looking-glass world we’re now living in, the tyrant who rules Russia asked Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly for an apology for calling Putin a “killer” (a characterization that Trump not only endorsed but seemed to think America should emulate).
Of course, there’s more the press could do. And last year, far too much of the media frequently went too easy on Trump and his surrogates, and gave him and his meandering rallies too much air time. But those days are gone — and with newly reinforced spines, the media is actively reporting on “falsehoods” and “lies.”
The irony is that, despite Trump’s desire for adulation, the administration itself is feeding much of the current narrative: A White House that now leaks like a sieve is providing a compelling set of plotlines for the media to cover. Chaos, backbiting and a staff that isn’t sure where the light switches are? Enormous protests, families torn apart by shoddy policies and an administration that gives the Keystone Kops a run for their money in the disorganization department? Juicy stories like these are giving every single person in the supposedly “failing” media a bunch of reasons to attack their jobs like there’s no tomorrow.
And you know who’s reading all of it? Our media-critic-in-chief, who cannot stop sampling all the stories that allegedly do not matter to him. He keeps saying that the “lying” media is on its deathbed, yet the reality is that many publications are reporting robust growth in subscribers and website traffic. Those are numbers he ignores, in the lengthy tradition of entertainment industry titans who only hear what they want to hear. But his own low approval numbers? Those must be false, and he definitely doesn’t care about them. As the New York Times critic James Poniewozik put it, “Just as he could not be satisfied with the niche success of ‘The Apprentice,’ he seemingly cannot bear being a niche president. It eats at him. He wants to win total viewers, not just the key demo.”
Like many a media-savvy mogul before him (hello, Rosebud), Trump also covets the kind of validation that money and power can’t buy. Despite all of his protests to the contrary, he cares what we ink-stained (computer-chained?) wretches think. He knows, on some level, that praise from those who work for him isn’t the same as positive feedback from those whose paychecks he doesn’t control.
So when “SNL” skewers a notable resident of Trumplandia, as Melissa McCarthy did brilliantly this weekend with her blistering Sean Spicer performance, it burns (and of course, the fact that a woman played a well-known staffer annoyed Trump intensely, which is why “SNL” should double down on this practice as soon as possible). When the not-failing New York Times or Washington Post puts out a deeply reported story full of unshakeable facts, or when a CNN anchor refuses to let an acolyte squirm out of a tough question, it unfailingly gets under the skin of the most thin-skinned man to ever occupy the highest office in the land.
The power the press has over the wealthy, the powerful and the image-obsessed is that we can refine the public discourse. We can provide a mirror, and, if we’re lucky, a megaphone for those with believable and factual narratives. Those who wish to create alternative scenarios that are generally unmoored from reality should stick to fictional storytelling. And when it comes to that kind of thing, those of us who cover the entertainment industry have already seen almost every beat of this reboot.
We’ve seen enough of the Trump administration to know that, like a showrunner who doesn’t take notes from anyone, it is simply smashing together a bunch of racist, sexist, xenophobic ideas into a tired set of premises and calling the resulting mess a “ground-breaking” and “challenging” production.
I’ve seen that kind of show in my career many times. It always gets canceled.