Looking back, it would be easy to write off Donald Trump’s foray into political sensationalism in light of the flagging value of his brand. Observers seem to agree that Trump’s move, rather than a serious attempt to run for President, was a brilliant publicity stunt—even if the stunt backfired after the White House Correspondent’s dinner and the killing of bin Laden.
What made Trump significant, however, is how media coverage of the faux-candidacy dramatized it as a story worth watching— especially as a political clash between worthy opponents over the birther “issue.” Check out the split screen presentation of Trump’s New Hampshire comments on MSNBC right after Obama released the document, for example. MSNBC counts down for Obama’s response on the left, while showing the Donald’s bluster at his success in “provoking” Obama to release his long form birth certificate on the right.
Although the White House press room frame is larger, it is empty. Obama is absent from the scene, but his response is promised. Trump, on the other hand, is larger than life: the close focus on his head and shoulders makes him the most prominent human on the screen. Viewers at home are told to stay tuned, to listen in on the next phase of this entertaining political catfight reconceived as “breaking news.” MSNBC’s split screen presentation and focus on Trump constructs a “real” dialogue where one is only implied. Back in reality, when Obama did make his statement he avoided Trump’s name explicitly.
Given the media’s complicity in the production of a pseudo-debate between The Donald and Obama, one thing we can be sure of heading into Campaign 2012 is that no criticisms of news-as-infotainment will be heeded.
— Patrick Wade