In addition to the usual rambling and nonsense, President Donald Trump's daily briefings of efforts to contain and combat the coronavirus have featured another regular bit that has begun to reoccur with dreadful predictability.
It goes like this: The president is asked a question by a reporter. The president then insults that reporter. Within two minutes, the reporter's name begins to trend on Twitter. Articles are written, and at least some cable news channels focus their coverage of the press conference not on the number of ventilators that governors have managed to squeeze out of the president's hands but on the number of insults the president managed to squeeze into a 30-second television sound bite. And 24 hours later, at the next press conference, it begins again.
There was the time NBC News reporter Peter Alexander asked Trump whether he was giving Americans "false hope" and asked the president, "What do you say to Americans who are scared?"
"I say that you are a terrible reporter," Trump replied.
There was the time a reporter asked about the president's tweets in which he alleged that the media wants the country to remain closed to hurt his reelection campaign. "I think it is very clear that there are people in your profession that write fake news," Trump retorted. "You do, she does."
There was the Sunday evening episode in this new TV drama. Yamiche Alcindor, a "PBS NewsHour" reporter, asked the president about comments he'd made on Sean Hannity's show suggesting that governors were exaggerating their need for ventilators.
The president denied he'd made the remarks, and when Alcindor began to quote him back to himself, he cut her off. "You know, why don't you people act ... a little more positive?" He said. "It's always get you, get you, get you," he went on. "Be nice. Don't be threatening."
And on Monday night, like clockwork, it happened again. "What do you say to Americans who believe that you got this wrong?" CNN's Jim Acosta asked the president. "It's people like you and CNN that say things like that," Trump seethed. "It's why people just don't want to listen to CNN anymore. You could ask a normal question."
Within minutes, Acosta, #WhiteHouseBriefing and #BoycottTrumpBriefings were all trending on Twitter.
It's astonishing. At a time when a pandemic is raging across the world, with millions of Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from and whether they will have a job to go back to, the thing preoccupying the Twitterati is the president insulting journalists.
Needless to say, the president should not be engaging in such undignified displays and personal attacks; they are beneath the office he holds, and they convey a sense of "open season" on the press that evokes the well-known practices of more successful, less buffoonish autocratic leaders.
Yet Trump's attacks are not and never have been about silencing the press; they have always been about appropriating it. If there's one thing Trump knows how to do, it's how to keep cameras rolling, how to keep them on him. He's hacked the mainstream media, and realized that despite their routine threats to stop carrying his news briefings, the one thing the media - like Trump - finds irresistible is a story about itself.
The president all but admitted that this is his motivation in a Sunday morning tweet: "President Trump is a ratings hit," he tweeted gleefully.
The bit wouldn't work if the media didn't do its part turning themselves and their wounded sense of their own importance into the story day after day.
It's a perfectly symbiotic relationship. To millions of Americans living in deep fear and uncertainty, a reporter asking "What message does President Trump lashing out at reporters send to countries around the world?" is just the flip side of the ridiculous and embarrassing One America News Network reporters asking the president questions designed to flatter his ego.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Batya Ungar-Sargon is opinion editor at The Forward.
Visit New York Daily News at www.nydailynews.com
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