NEW YORK CITY — At the criminal court in downtown Manhattan today, nothing important happened. Believe me. I was there. There were no meaningful occurrences of true consequence. Certainly nothing worthy of a claim on your limited attention. I wouldn’t bring it up at all, except that I fear that my friends and I in the media may be about to gleefully poison this nation, one more time.
One thing about New York City is that it is home to a large population of reporters, of which I am one, that will reliably turn up at any spectacle. Not out of any nefarious motives. We do this for the same reason that residents of small towns turn up at the county fair: It’s something to do.
Media is a two-way entertainment business. In order to entertain our audience, we must first be entertained ourselves. Spectacles, therefore, are irresistible. This is okay, even amusing, until the weight of a spectacle grows so large and monopolizes so much of the available energy that it starts feeding itself, investing itself with undue importance purely because everyone is paying it so much attention. Such was the case with the media circus around the arraignment of former President Donald J. Trump over hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. Like drinking an entire bottle of vodka, this can all seem like great fun, until you wake up and find that everything around you has been broken.
On Tuesday morning, the east side of Collect Pond Park across the street from the courthouse was lined with tents, each one home to a camera crew from a different national news organization. Many of those cameras were trained on a guy in a breakdancing-style track suit who was spinning a basketball on top of a pole holding an American flag, as he danced back and forth in Rollerblades chanting “Donald. J. Trump. Not. Guilty!” He seemed to be the most newsworthy thing out there.
The park itself, which was ostensibly the site of a protest, was jammed with a crowd that was about 80% press, 15% police and 5% people who had come to protest or counterprotest on one side or the other. Any lunatic who wanted to don a MAGA hat or wave a “FUCK TRUMP” flag and make their way downtown was likely to be photographed and patiently interviewed by multiple power-suited TV newspeople who would nod and maintain a look of professionalism, no matter how stupid the words flowing from the person’s mouth were. One man wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and a rubber Trump mask told a reporter, with great seriousness, “I don’t really give interviews, because I don’t sound like him.” We, the press, were all here, and we needed content. There was no one to blame but ourselves.
Even the Proud Boys and antifa, usually reliable telegenic opponents on the field of pointless political battle, did not bother showing up to this event, leaving the desperate reporters crowding around a single guy with a Trump hat on his head and a small dog in a cart at his side.
At last, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the bombastic Georgia fool (and Republican House representative), showed up to give her speech. Or so I was told. Though I was only feet away from her alleged location, I could not see her through the tightly packed forest of cameras, and I could not hear her thanks to one determined opponent who continually blew an orange plastic whistle as long as she was speaking. Eventually her security detail pushed through the chaotic crowd and the person I assume to be Greene left the park, trailing a cloud of media like a comet’s tail.
After that, there was nothing much left except the freaks and predators astute enough to come and sponge up the free press. New York Rep. Jamal Bowman was there, saying some things, along with a performance artist who smeared white paint all over her skin and screamed “Fuck white people!” until the police strongly encouraged her to leave the park.
Here and there, some die-hard MAGA people who had come in to support their pagan god milled about, looking a little aimless. I asked two women from Texas wearing Trump t-shirts where else they planned to go in the big city after the rally. “Probably nowhere,” one said. “I’m not risking my life to be out in New York City. You all have rapes, murders, right in the streets here, with Bragg letting all the criminals go.” This was pure delusion. It’s true that waltzing around New York in a Trump hat puts you at risk for public humiliation, but other than that, it’s a pretty safe city. It’s easy to lay this sort of thinking at the doorstep of Fox News, but if we are being honest, your local news can produce this same sort of fearful hallucination on a local scale.
There are plenty of important things happening in America right now. Florida has just effectively banned abortion. Vital elections are taking place in Chicago and Wisconsin. In Los Angeles, a labor dispute threatens to shut down Hollywood. All of these things will have a profound material impact on millions of people’s lives. The hundreds of reporters in Manhattan today were not covering any of these things. They were covering the guy on rollerblades instead. We will never know how many more important stories did not get told because we were all out in this park full of cretins.
Some will say, “Isn’t the historic arraignment of a former United States President important as well?” And I say to you: No. It’s not. Not really.
Donald Trump walking in and getting his mug shot taken is not important in the same way that a woman in Florida being forced to have a baby she doesn’t want due to the brutal and cowardly actions of her state’s elected leaders is important.
A single pool reporter with a notebook and an iPhone could cover the Trump arraignment just as effectively as dozens of CNN satellite teams can, because there is not really very much happening, when you get right down to it. I don’t want to be an old crank here. I like spectacle. I am a reporter on the far margins of national news, and that is where spectacle belongs.
It is worth making this point very clearly, before the 2024 presidential campaign season really gets cooking. It’s not too late to correct our course here. The press had many grave, chin-stroking panels about lessons learned after our hypnotic fascination with Trump’s every last bleat ushered him into the White House atop a pile of free media coverage. But if today was any indication, the hypnotism is just as strong as ever. We are right back in the same place, doing the whole dumb thing all over again.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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