Donald Trump is in legal trouble again. But then, he has been in legal trouble my entire life.
Starting with the Nixon Justice Department’s housing discrimination lawsuit against his company back in 1973, Trump had been involved in more than 3,500 legal disputes before he even moved into the White House. Yes, some — such as the complaint against a tenant for not paying rent even though he had — were frivolous, but many, like the one brought by the Justice Department, weren’t.
All of which should have been a red flag for the media. But it wasn’t.
Instead, media executives put Trump on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”; they gave him his own reality TV show; and they allowed him to spew lies about President Obama’s origins without producing a shred of evidence.
The debate over CNN’s infamous recent Trump town hall made it seem as if “How do we cover Trump?” was a novel question. But New York newspapers ran his full-page ads effectively calling for the death penalty for the now-exonerated “Central Park Five” in 1989 even though their executives knew Trump could not be trusted. And they knew this because their newspapers had already been covering Trump for years.
We journalists can certainly use our sharp tongues and witty prose to eviscerate the cowards in Congress who are afraid to acknowledge that classified documents shouldn’t be sprawled out on the floor of a Florida storage room. But the media were in the business of legitimizing Trump long before those red baseball caps became a thing.
Even now, much of the coverage of the former president’s federal indictment is focused on its unprecedented nature. Yet the fact is that this is someone who has been in legal trouble for half a century.
“How do we cover Trump?” is not the question of the moment. That question should have been asked and answered long before he emerged as the Republican front-runner for 2024 or 2016.
Trump is now a factor in a fourth consecutive general election because sometime between “The Apprentice” and the 2016 primary, his import changed while his media coverage remained the same. This corrupt figure became the leader of a dangerous movement but continued to be treated like a diverting celebrity.
Back in 1991, two years after he suggested that Black and brown children should be executed for a crime they didn’t commit, Trump was quoted as saying in reference to a Black accountant at one of his casinos: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” And yet in 2011, executives allowed Trump to appear on “The View,” the “Today” show and “Morning Joe” to question the legitimacy of the country’s first Black president as if one had nothing to do with other.
He was good on TV, so Trump — who had coined the phrase “truthful hyperbole” decades before — didn’t have to produce any evidence. Just ratings and clicks.
The nonstop coverage of his 2016 campaign sometimes featured an empty podium as media executives banked on the mere expectation that he would appear. Trump understood all of this. He also understood that millions of Americans felt voiceless. So he leveraged his celebrity to speak on their behalf with the help of an industry he understood how to manipulate all too well.
The media have been covering Trump and his legal woes for 50 years, and he knows we have yet to get it right. Thousands and thousands of lawsuits — for stiffing his contractors, for shutting off tenants’ heat in the dead of winter — and yet he was always able to leverage his celebrity to say whatever he wanted on the air.
Maybe, instead of asking how we cover Trump, we should be asking why.
Why is there an empty podium on the screen? Why is a person who has been sued repeatedly for fraud allowed to question anyone’s legitimacy without proof? And why are the media still letting Trump’s tales wag the supposed watchdog?