Rudy Giuliani was ridiculed for saying that ‘truth isn’t truth’ last Sunday on NBC. But truth isn’t truth in the media. The problem isn’t so much partisanship, as the determination to give people what they want. Cable news is about as truthful as a telenovela. The plot lines feel real, because they keeping recurring and the actors carry them with conviction, and because the viewers want them to feel real. But realness and reality are not the same.
This is why reality television is really fiction, even though it shows real people doing ostensibly real things, like hiring and firing apprentices. It is why Anderson Cooper is a second-rate actor impersonating a real person called Anderson Cooper in a performance so unconvincing that you wonder if there actually is a real person called Anderson Cooper. It is why the news that the New York Times sees as fit to print is written in a unique and bizarre sub-dialect: if you tune in every day, you know the characters and the plotlines. And it is why David Pecker, the proprietor of the National Enquirer, is an honest man.
The National Enquirer admits its preference for plot and drama over truth. Stand in a supermarket line, and you see small smiles developing on people’s faces as they read the Enquirer’s headlines. The Enquirer ranges from the fantastical and quasi-religious — the eternal life of Elvis, the abductions by UFOs — to the absurd and quasi-political. The latter category being more enjoyable, because much of American politics is already quasi-political, in the sense that politicians preemptively conform to the media’s scripts.
Who, then, can be surprised to learn that the National Enquirer supported Trump’s candidacy, and that its publisher, American Media Inc., was involved in Michael Cohen’s transactions on behalf of Trump? Short of a military coup, Trump is the most quasi-political entertainment that American politics can produce. Of course American Media Inc.’s chairman, the superbly surnamed David Pecker, is an old friend of Trump’s. Of course, Pecker has evidence, the very quintessence of truth at its most truthiest, in his office safe.
While Trump was being led by his pecker, Pecker was being pushed by Trump, to push Birther nonsense about Obama. Like an Enquirer cover story, it’s all too good to be true. A more scrupulous scriptwriter might have changed Pecker’s name — too obvious, too crude. But that’s reality.
In my anthropological studies of supermarket lines, I’ve noticed that when people are caught enjoying the cover of the National Enquirer, they give a small smile and a shrug, as if to say, ‘Everybody does it, and what’s the harm?’ Donald Trump gave the same signals when he told Fox and Friends that Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal had been paid off with his own money, rather than his 2016 campaign funds. Yet the division between Trump’s own money and his campaign funds was, like the truthfulness of the National Enquirer, a necessary fiction. That is what we get when an oligarch-turned-television performer finances his own campaign.
When Trump became president, his peccadilloes as a private citizen became matters of public interest. Today, the Times claims that Pecker has collaborated with the federal prosecutors, or even made a deal, exchanging evidence of the president’s pecker-related activities for immunity. Trump’s brazen shrug on Fox and Friends suggests that he will play his role to the end. He has a four-year contract for the biggest show on Earth.
Trump, as he will no doubt soon remind us, did not sink to the level of Bill Clinton. Daniels and McDougal are professionals, and Trump paid them for their work, eventually. Monica Lewinsky was an amateur, and the Clintons and their defenders did their best to ruin her life. Trump genuinely seems not to see what the problem is, probably because he considers the office of the presidency to be no different to any other, and politics to be a filthier activity than business. But the Republicans who denounced Bill Clinton for degrading his office should take the same line with Trump’s extramarital excursions, whether he paid for his ticket or not.
The system is functioning as it should. Politics and the media are dovetailing ever more efficiently towards the public’s sweet spot, the one that the National Enquirer has always aimed for. It is only a matter of time before we see footage of a sitting president, engaged in what used to be called the act of love with a woman not his wife. The people have a right to know.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor at Spectator USA.