Of course, the thin-skinned eminence has always been able to manipulate the media; he’s obsessed with measurement, and it’s part of his shtick to promote himself as ratings bait. But lately he has achieved Absolute Frank Sinatra-levels of “I Did It (to the media) My Way.”
Who but the molder of Apprentices would even think of dictating the terms of a debate to the various networks?
With his patented “phone-in,” the real estate baron has even managed to revolutionize (and retro-ize) the concept of a TV “appearance.” Rather than having to show up in the studio, he gets to be the voice-cloud of Trumpiness hovering over the anchor desk with no corporeal form.
Of course, the thing about television is that it’s visual. Before this election, no self-respecting network TV news program would allow “phone-ins” from anyone, unless it was to cover a national emergency. The image of Walter Cronkite hanging up the heavy black receiver, removing his glasses, dabbing his eyes, and turning to the camera and announcing John F. Kennedy’s death comes to mind, but that grave and iconic moment happened more than a half century ago.
But with his old-school phone moves, Trump can be everywhere at once — for free. Indeed, it has come to the point where we “watch” the anchors speaking to this invisible deity, who, by dint of his nasty verbal tangents, and obsession with revenge and metrics, still makes for amazing auditory theater.
This past Tuesday, Chris Cuomo, CNN’s “New Day” co-anchor, presided over just such a call-in. Ostensibly, Trump was on the line to talk about his new book, “Crippled America.” Instead, he went on a tirade about how the CNN reporter assigned to cover him didn’t show the huge lines of people at his book signing, and instead kept the camera on herself. He then started bashing Wayne Barrett, a journalist who wrote a book about him that was published in 1992.
When it was over, Cuomo turned to his fellow anchors — and the reaction was palpable, as if they had all been holding their breath. It was like going from black and white to living color in the studio, as they came back to life. (Call it post-traumatic Trump-phoner disorder.)
Two days (and many phone-ins) later, Trump released his first-ever paid radio ads. (A $300,000 buy.) If, as a disembodied voice, Trump can be so mesmerizing on television, why would he ever need paid ads?
Well, for one thing, he seemed to be losing it with Cuomo, and radio spots are one cheap way to stay disciplined and “on message.”
Reportedly, Carson has used traditional paid media in Iowa effectively to reach his evangelical base. Perhaps Trump felt that he also had to run spots on certain evangelical stations to counter Carson’s recent surge.
But, to quote one of Trump’s most lethal put-downs, his 60-second spots are really low-energy.
Trump voices one himself; the other features a soothing female voiceover (to remind us that he cherishes women?) But why use radio spots to rehash the exact same points that he makes on the campaign trail and in his new book? Why not use them to answer other questions — like, will you really stay in the race? — or to get into the specifics of one particular issue?
Interestingly, the spots feature no flourishes at all — not even any background music. The one with the Donald’s voice comes off as grinding and stentorian, 60 seconds of
nonstop talking points that seem to defeat the purpose of his putting down other pols as “all talk, no action.”
By contrast, the woman’s voice is lulling and almost hypnotic. I was nodding off until she got to the line reading that Donald Trump will “react brutally and quickly and cut the head off ISIS.”
So the outliers are going old-school now, coming out with books and radio spots. As this race gets tougher, it seems that Trump will have to learn new tricks.
In the end, he’ll find that no matter what deals he was able to make previously, and however easy it’s been for him to be the ringleader, he can’t fire the media. And maybe he’ll realize that, like the nighttime tweeting, perhaps he should leave the advertising to professionals.