Here is the column:
In the Indian Ocean, there is a strange mutually beneficial relationship that developed between two otherwise rivals. While the fire sea urchin is poisonous and much feared, the red urchin crab has learned to carry it around on its back. The crab uses the urchin as a weapon while the urchin uses the crab to move freely into new feeding grounds. Washington has its own strange forms of symbiotic relationship and one became evident in two separate interviews by the president of the United States and the president of CNN.
Both effectively admitted that they needed each other: Donald Trump needs the media as a weapon and the media needs Donald Trump to sustain itself. It was a rare moment of honesty in Washington that was lost in the crush of the tragic news of the Pittsburgh shootings and the Florida pipe bomber. The comments of President Trump and Jeff Zucker confirmed the strange symbiosis between Trump and his media critics.
Trump has long been an anomaly in politics. He has been regularly denounced for false statements. Yet he is also one of the most transparent politicians of his generation, often acknowledging agendas or desires that most politicians conceal. Where Hillary Clinton seemed incapable of being open and honest, even when it would have worked to her advantage), Trump compulsively blurts out the worst possible admissions even when no one is pressing him for them. Examples range from his disastrous interview with NBC anchor Lester Holt acknowledging his thinking of the Russia investigation when firing FBI director James Comeyor his self-defeating statements on his travel ban on Muslim majority countries.
Last week, however, was the ultimate example of a man who likes to play poker with the cards facing outward. Trump told Axios that his overheated attacks on the media as the “enemy of the people” are meant to fire up his base. Trump said, “I couldn’t be here if I didn’t do that.” When asked to stop the attacks, Trump said that he commonly replies “Hey, I’m here! It got me here.” He added, “I know what I do good and what I do bad. I really get it, okay? I really get it better than anybody in the whole world.”
Moreover, the president noted that “much easier” for him “to be nice than it is for me to be the way I have to be.” The “way he has to be” appears to be endlessly demonizing the media even when such attacks can easily cross the line into a dangerous form of demagoguery. Such attacks can move a crazed individual like Cesar Sayoc from rage to response in fighting the enemy within.
The media has shown an equal absence of self-criticism and awareness. Networks like CNN constantly seem to be offer counterpoints rather than coverage, consistently taking the most critical take on every word that Trump utters. While Trump gives ample opportunity for negative coverage, many CNN hosts and reporters have abandoned any semblance of detached neutral analysis. The reason was made evident in a recent interview by CNN president Zucker. When asked why CNN now seems to report only on Trump and virtually no other news around the world, Zucker had a surprising moment of clarity: It’s all about the ratings. Zucker said, “People say all the time, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about Trump, I’ve had too much Trump.’ … We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.”
What is curious is that the tactics do not seem to be working all that well for Trump or CNN. Trump is looking at the loss of the House and a narrow hold of the Senate despite one of the best economies in years. While his popularity has risen recently, Trump continues to roller coaster on favorability below a majority of voters. While his attacks on journalists have rallied supporters, it has riled a growing number of “anyone but Trump” voters, and pushed suburban moms and independents toward the Democrats.
At least Trump can claim favorability with his supporters and other conservatives. CNN has ridden its openly anti-Trump coverage into the basement of ratings. In October, Fox News again beat both CNN and MSNBC in ratings and posted more viewers than both competitors combined. Fox News averaged 2.8 million to the less than 1.6 million viewers of MSNBC and 931,000 of CNN. CNN finished ninth in basic cable overall, behind the Hallmark Channel and HGTV.
Missing from the remarks of both Trump and Zucker is any notion of ethical obligations that transcend ratings. An United States president should be a champion of the free press, a defining institution under our Constitution. Likewise, a media president should recognize the obligation to cover news and not just the most clickbaited subject. While CNN legitimately mocked Trump for bizarre meetings in the Oval Office with figures like Kanye West, it covered those meetings in detail and continued to replay it on an endless loop as wars and natural disasters went without nary a mention.
The fact is that they need each other. Recently, CNN anchor Brian Stelter took offense with a statement made by journalism legend Ted Koppel when he noted that, despite the caustic comments, Trump was good for CNN. Stelter responded, “That means what? If ratings are up, that means what?” Koppel did not back down and correctly stated, “The ratings are up, it means you can’t do without Donald Trump. You would be lost without Donald Trump.” When Stelter shot back “Ted, you know that’s not true,” Koppel responded with the common view that “CNN’s ratings would be in the toilet without Donald Trump.” That brought an angry retort from Stelter that “You know that’s not true. You’re playing for laughs.”
Now Stelter’s boss has basically said that same thing and confirmed that CNN is playing for ratings. Call it sensational symbiosis. Trump carries the media like a red urchin crab while CNN rides him as far as he can go. They both benefit by maintaining a level of anger while ignoring the obvious damage to both the presidency and the press. Both play to relatively narrow bandwidths of voters and viewers to achieve short-term returns. That is the thing with mutualism among symbiotic creatures: The benefits rarely extend beyond the two animals while the costs can be great for those around them.