Inside the Media’s Myth-Making Machine

My late friend and colleague Hilton Kramer used to tell the story about how Time magazine (remember Time?) would prep its photographers before sending  them off to snap the likeness of someone they were profiling. The magazine didn’t just want a portrait. It was always “Good guy” or “Bad guy.” This was well known.  So when Time sent someone to photograph Norman Podhoretz, the former editor of Commentary who had lately shed his left-wing opinions and emerged as a powerful voice on the Right, Norman had the wit to ask “Good guy or bad guy?”  The photographer shook his head sadly and admitted, “Bad guy.” At least Norman knew what he was in for.

That’s how the media’s mythmaking machine works: it’s heroes or villains. The categories are not quite impermeable — there is a certain thrill about watching a former hero suddenly lose his halo and, Lucifer-like, plunge into the darkness. That happens every now and then just to keep things lively. But it is remarkable how solid the media’s loyalty is while it lasts. Consider, speaking of Time magazine, the notorious example of Nina Burleigh, the former Time reporter whose fifteen-seconds of fame came during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. “I would be happy,” Burleigh said,  “to give [Clinton] a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their Presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.”

Noted.

The point was that, back then, Bill Clinton, and Hillary by proxy,  were still bathed in the beneficent light of media invulnerability. The nimbus has been breached, in large part because of Donald Trump’s response to Hillary’s charge that Trump was “sexist” (though he did have an assist from Bill Cosby). But while it lasted, the Clinton Carapace was a remarkable thing, as the words “Rose Law Firm files,” “Whitewater,” “Cattle futures,” “Benghazi,” “Clinton Foundation,” “email scandal,” and females with kneepads too numerous to name suggest.  There seemed to be almost nothing that Bill or Hillary could do that would earn them the serious displeasure of the media, and hence, the serious displeasure of the serried ranks of semi-automata we ennoble with the name “the voting pubic.”

To a large extent, that temporary status, that “Queen for a Day” tiara, has been passed on to Donald Trump. As Trump himself put it, with only slight exaggeration, he could stroll down Fifth Avenue, guns blazing,  and “shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters.” It is important to understand that this undiplomatic immunity, though reinforced by the acclamation of his fans, is a creation and ultimately a creature of the media. It’s the media dispensation that provides the cover, the nurturing environment, in which the magic spell works. Remove the media sanction and the cold light of day floods in.

Yet of course the fans are an essential element in the process. They form the gallery to which the media plays. There are two things to bear in mind about the fans. One is their virulence. Take a look at the comments to any negative piece about Donald Trump. Hysteria and anger are the hallmarks of his fans. In this respect Trump fans are a bit like Obama fans back in the it-was-dawn-to-be-alive-then days of 2008 when Obama was promising to heal the earth and slow the rise of the seas. That all seems queasy-making now, like the scent of whiskey the morning after. But I suspect that the coterie that Trump fans most closely resemble are the acolytes of Ayn Rand, who tend to respond to criticism of their patron saint with an intemperateness that is partly alarming, partly amusing.