After the host of The Apprentice formally announced his presidential candidacy in 2015, Donald J. Trump became a golden goose for the news industry. Not only was he already a public figure of significant interest, but his brand of politics was so shocking and offbeat that you either covered him because he would get you eyeballs and clicks, or you covered him because he was creating such a storm that it would be borderline journalistic negligence to not report it. Oftentimes it was both, which made Donald Trump the perfect storm for journalists big and small.
Then he got elected. Then Sean Spicer tried to gaslight Americans by insisting that Trump’s inauguration crowd was bigger than it actually was. Then Kellyanne Conway introduced the world to “alternative facts”, inadvertently spiking the sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Then he got into a Twitter feud with Kim Jong Un. Then there was the Mueller investigation. It just kept coming. And journalists were there at every turn to report on the newest controversy, or detail the latest scandal.
And we ate it up. CNN’s ratings skyrocketed. The New York Times saw a huge spike in digital subscribers. “The Trump Bump”, they called it. Quantity aside, we also got a tremendous boost in quality. Trump’s framing of “the Media” as the his opposition party only made it absolutely clear to those in the industry just how important it was that they fulfilled their duty as the Fourth Estate. And that they did. Every few days reporters were uncovering the Trump administration’s misdeeds. Every few weeks we’d get insider reports. Every few months the Times or the Washington Post would drop a huge exposé.
More than anything, Donald Trump changed the pace of breaking news. It used to be that when a big story broke, there would be the initial uproar, then the life of the story would slowly wane as we consumed it. Since Trump, we very rarely ever get a chance to digest even the biggest of stories. A few weeks ago, on September 27th, the Times published a massive report about Trump’s long-unobtained tax returns that revealed that he paid no federal income tax for over a decade and just $750 in 2017. It was a bombshell. By September 30th, you would’ve thought that it was a nothingburger, as everyone had moved on to the chaotic first presidential debate from the night before.
If the man that’s sworn in on January 20th, 2021 is Joe Biden, don’t expect a significant change. That’s not because Biden is equally as scandalous as Trump, but because Trump will most definitely still be around. He’s not going to go gently into the night; he’s going to fight, and fight, and fight against the dying of his spotlight. He will be tweeting about Biden’s every move. He will probably still be holding rallies, just for kicks. He will be reminding America that he’s eligible to run for another term someday and he’ll hover around the political sphere like a gnat at a barbeque.
And while Trump would return to being a private citizen and a Biden administration will likely return the day-to-day palace intrigue to a relative minimum — because Biden is, you know, normal — don’t expect the Trump stories to just disappear. Advisors and aides can reveal salacious details without fear of being criticized for speaking ill about a sitting president. Politicians that lost their spine these last four years may suddenly feel obligated to tell their side of the story. People will want to talk, journalists will want to listen, and we’ll want to hear all about it.
The New York Times will likely not lose steam. The Washington Post will still be around doing what it does. With Trump no longer the President, we’ll benefit from the media’s lack of a demanding center of attention because they’ll be able to focus on real hard news. Maybe we’ll get a surge in climate reporting that’ll match the issue’s importance. There will likely be more time to focus on actual policy and governing. Think about how much time was devoted to all the random stories that Trump and those in his orbit created. As his one-time Chief Strategist Steve Bannon famously admitted, their plan was to “flood the zone with shit.”
And we had to swim in it for four years. Think about how much mind-space that took up and how much energy it took to keep up. For the Media, Biden becoming the 46th President of the United States will be like you having to suddenly quarantine at home and finding yourself with an abundance of time to do that-thing-you-always-wanted-to-do. Imagine a world where Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States. Shit will still be flung and the world will still be in a state of disaster, but perhaps you’ll be able to at least catch your breath. Imagine that. Then imagine if Trump wins, again.