Imagine a Charlie Sheen guide to sobriety. Or a Bernie Madoff handbook for risk-free investing. CNN’s Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything, the first insta-book purporting to definitively interpret the 2016 presidential campaign, poses pretty much the same paradox.
Yes, that’s right: Jeff Zucker’s CNN — which cruised to historic, and historically profitable, ratings with its Trumppacked 2016 campaign coverage; which broadcast acres of unfiltered Trump rally footage in what amounted to a lavish in-kind campaign donation; which retained Trump campaign operative Corey Lewandowski as an on-air news analyst (thereby permanently degrading the meaning of both “news” and “analysis”) — is now gamely stepping forward to explain just how it was that an authoritarian, demagogic bigot with a long record of sexual predation won the U.S. presidency. The true wonderment here is that the text isn’t just the old bully’s admonition to “stop hitting yourself,” repeated in different fonts and typefaces across the coffee-table volume’s 288 pages.
Instead, Unprecedented is generously bedecked with campaign photos, buzzwords and scattershot pundit reminiscences. As an exploration of the restive, angry American electorate, however, the book is as glib and content-free as a typical cable news hour. We’re made to understand that a downwardly mobile segment of middle-to-working-class white voters is mad about something. But the closest we get to hearing them explain the source of that anger is an interview with a Trump-supporting South Philadelphian named Jersey Dave Calabro, who disavowed his lifelong Bruce Springsteen fandom when The Boss came out for Hillary, and boldly predicted Trump’s Pennsylvania victory because “the guy never loses.” How condescending is this thumbnail portrait? This condescending: “He did not always drink beer,” sneers Thomas Lake, a CNN Politics writer and the book’s author, “but when he did, he drank Coors Light.” Lake then airily informs us that Trump carried the election thanks to an “army of Jersey Dave Calabros.”
Two-dimensional stereotyping aside, the CNN-branded view of the res publica is a place where things just mysteriously happen. “People kept forgetting things, kept changing their minds” is how the mid-summer disarray in the Trump campaign is actually described here; “confusion took hold.”
You don’t say. Confusion actually abounds when you lovingly construct caricatures of a simpler, more homespun electorate that only exists in a TV producer’s idiot reveries. Chronicling a campaign season bursting with populist resentment, CNN doesn’t bother to delve into its sources, or America’s tangled history of thwarted and diverted populist revolt. Instead, it gives us cloying greeting-card appraisals of the American scene: “The sun rose and set as usual that fall,” we’re warmly assured. “Dogs were still loyal, cats unknowable, and children eventually fell asleep.”
The Sanders uprising is treated with dismissive scorn: “Sanders had to lose in order to be proven right,” Lake nonsensically pronounces. “If the billionaires were as powerful and corrupt as he claimed, they would never let Sanders become president.” Never mind that the Clinton campaign and its DNC retainers hardwired the primaries to fend off the Sanders crusade, along with any other serious challenge to Clinton’s coronation.
One decisive takeaway from all the blatherskite collected between the covers of Unprecedented is that you, dear reader, should not even think of blaming the tirelessly vacuous and amoral business model of CNN for the many perils now assailing the American republic. CNN President Jeff Zucker — the man who, in his prior post at NBC, catapulted Trump to global celebrity with The Apprentice—contributes a self-exculpating chapter lauding his own executive vision in comprehending “that Trump had much broader appeal” than many media naysayers presumed. Scrubbed of the smarmy self-congratulation, this boils down to little more than the standard hack-executive alibi of “giving the people what they want” — without ever pausing to acknowledge that your own saturation coverage directly shapes what people think they want. But hey, Zucker chirps, CNN could be hard on Trump as well. During one CNN primary debate, anchor Jake Tapper invited Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to attack Trump’s qualifications to handle the nuclear codes, and “both took a pass.” So presto: a clean fourth-estate bill of health! “His competitors took a pass,” Zucker insists. “How is that the fault of the media?”
Well, like this, Jeff: No coherent definition of the media’s role in our democracy includes debate moderators putting questions to an authoritarian thug’s “competitors” and then fading obsequiously into the background. Going back to John Peter Zenger and Elijah Parish Lovejoy, American journalists have risked imprisonment and martyrdom to challenge unjust exercises of state power. Imagine if Ed Murrow had asked some of Joe McCarthy’s Senate colleagues to have at the lying demagogue, and when they failed, simply ended his CBS broadcasts with a fatalistic shrug.
As Donald Trump prepares to become the most powerful man on the planet, he’s let it be known that he intends to harass and threaten honest journalists into a posture of uncritical deference. In that sense, and in that sense alone, Unprecedented is useful — as a snapshot of how low journalism can sink in the Trump age.