During a CNN town hall last week, Donald Trump offered up that he probably works too hard and if he had worked “a little bit less,” he “probably wouldn’t have had two marriages that didn’t work out.” Moderator Anderson Cooper then thanked Trump for participating in the event, and the last town hall before South Carolina Republicans hit voting booths was over. There were no follow-up questions about the role of Trump’s — so public it was front-page news — affair with second wife, Marla Maples, in the breakup of his first marriage.
I understand CNN’s rationale for staging one-on-one interviews in lieu of a debate to give the public a peek at the more personal side of each GOP hopeful. As a journalist, I appreciate the delicate balancing act of trying to ask probing questions without being so confrontational that you become part of the story. But Cooper shouldn’t have let Trump turn his airtime into an infomercial.
I sympathize with the plight of any journalist who interviews the reality TV star. Trump tells so many whoppers that the relentless moderator would have to challenge practically everything he says. On Sunday, I watched CNN’s Jake Tapper and Fox News’ Chris Wallace ask Trump about something he said at the CNN town hall: “I like the mandate,” Trump had said, even though he wants to repeal Obamacare. That Sunday, Trump ran from that quote, saying that he and Cooper were talking at the same time. “There’s no mandate, no mandatory anything,” Trump told Tapper. In fact, Trump had volunteered to Cooper that he supported the mandate, because he supports health care for all.
Tapper and Wallace are no pushovers, but eventually they let it slide and moved on. That’s how Trump gets away with his endless fabrications. He is such a constant and shameless liar that there’s no way to pin him down without throwing out interview decorum.
In South Carolina on Friday, Trump told the story of an American general who is said to have captured 50 Muslim prisoners and ordered his troops to shoot 49 of them. The general told the 50th, “Go back to your people and you tell them what happened.” There were no problems for 25 years, Trump concluded.
That seems to be the template for his strategy with TV news. Trump famously went after Fox News’ Megyn Kelly for asking him about comments — fat pigs, dogs, slobs — which “The Donald” made about women. To retaliate against Kelly for reporting what he said, Trump waged a Twitter war, boycotted her Fox News show, and even passed on a later debate because Kelly was a moderator.
Watch other shows and you see the “Megyn Kelly Effect.” It sure seems as though some TV newsers shrink from pinning down Trump because they fear his fire, while others play up to Trump to boost their ratings. Le Show’s Harry Shearer aired audio of off-air banter in which Trump teased Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski: “You get all the ratings and a raise. Me, I get nothing.” Actually, he gets guests and hosts who marvel at his ability to break the rules without breaking his campaign.
I think back to the 2008 media feeding frenzy that bloodied GOP runningmate Sarah Palin. She didn’t have the gravitas to be on the ticket, critics asserted. It was the media’s job to expose her shortcomings for the good of the country. Where she was greeted with disdain, Trump enjoys accolades. It turns out Palin’s biggest weakness was not that she was unworthy, but that she wasn’t as good as Trump at kicking back.
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