Pretty much immediately after MSNBC announced their cynical decision to counter-program CNN’s Wednesday night GOP town hall with one of their own featuring Donald Trump, and moderated by Morning Joe’s Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, many figured it would be another instance of Joe and Mika buddying up to The Donald and providing him with yet another safe space of free media coverage.
Of course, that is exactly what occurred. Facing intense criticism over the pair’s cozy relationship with the celebrity billionaire and their show’s constant Trump coverage, you would hate thought that Brzezinski and Scarborough would have tried to prove their critics wrong and peppered the GOP frontrunner with tough questions. But, instead, it was just as everyone figured it would be — a rehearsed performance where Trump was given safe, pre-approved questions from audience members while Joe and Mika tossed him softball after softball.
Sure, Joe will point out to everyone that he pressed the former reality TV star on a couple of things, namely his insistence that he was against the Iraq War from the beginning despite there being no evidence he ever publicly condemned it in 2003. And Joe and Mika teased Trump about his most recent debate performance, telling him they felt he was awful. But, for the bulk of the hour-long broadcast, the duo allowed Trump to ramble on incoherently and offer no specifics, much like they do every time he calls into their show.
If you hadn’t really heard of Donald J. Trump before watching this thing, you’d never have guessed that the man has called on Muslims to be banned from this country, endorsed the use of torture, gladly shared information from noted white supremacists, called Mexicans rapists and criminals, claimed 80+% of whites murdered are committed by blacks and says he personally saw thousands of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks. And that is just a very small percentage of the offensive and inflammatory shit he’s said during this campaign. And it doesn’t touch on the fact that Trump was a leader in the birther movement (something else Joe and Mika have given him a pass on).
According to Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, the pandering hour of television showed not only the cynicism of MSNBC, but should be seen by Hillary Clinton as a sign of things to come if Trump indeed captured the GOP nomination.
If the softball questions weren’t enough to make you feel like you were watching a rigged entertainment program, everything else about Wednesday night’s event also had a ring of cynicism to it. CNN was hosting a “town hall” in South Carolina with several of the other candidates, and MSNBC clearly wanted to compete. They did so by managing to get the biggest ratings draw in the race to appear with his favorite hosts. (Trump often appears on Morning Joe.) It’s true that there have been moments when Trump and Scarborough have gotten tense with each other, but it has always been papered over, presumably because it’s in both of their interests. MSNBC has certainly not been uniformly easy on Trump, especially during its evening programs. But the networks’ reliance on his ratings—a problem that is especially acute at CNN—means that they need to maintain a certain amount of politeness when dealing with the real estate magnate.
If there is one takeaway, it’s that the media’s relationship with Trump should worry Hillary Clinton, assuming each of them vanquishes their primary opponents. I would have said six months ago, perhaps naïvely, that a blatantly bigoted candidate would face such a sustained media firestorm (especially in liberal precincts) that he would be incapable of getting elected. That’s not yet the case. Indeed, there are no signs that the media’s sick, interminable honeymoon with Trump will come to an end anytime soon. Which means that rather than witnessing the beginning of the end of Donald Trump’s time in the political spotlight, we may not even be at the end of the beginning.
And that’s the thing. Eight months into a campaign that is centered on craven bigotry and crass xenophobia, Donald Trump continues to get a pass from most within the mainstream media. Rather than face withering criticism and harsh, relentless questioning of his disgusting comments and actions, the press allows him to do and say as he pleases, focusing all their attention on his poll numbers and campaign rallies.
The fact is, any other candidate would have been annihilated by the media by now, and for good reason. But, because The Donald brings in ratings for the cable news industry, they won’t rock the boat. Instead, they’ll keep booking him for interviews, cover all his events live, and sugarcoat the fascistic tendencies he’s showing. All because they still see him as an entertainer. And they see this election as a reality TV show.