In the New York Times’s latest self-centered Hulu special, the op-ed board invited Democratic primary candidate after candidate into their lavish board room, peered over their elitist glasses at them and demanded why each of them might be worthy of their precious ink. One by one, the candidates willingly prostrated themselves before the court. At the end of this hour-long special, the Times revealed its endorsement. The suspense is over. The New York Times has endorsed Donald Trump for president.
That television special, like the Times’s docu-series The Weekly, lets the mask slip. For all the Times’s caterwauling about how President Trump’s bombastic weekly tweets threaten a free press, it’s now clear that Trump is a symptom of a media culture that the Times helped create — and not the other way round.
This incarnation of Donald Trump was not born from Tea Party rallies and staunch Reaganism. He wasn’t willed into existence by the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. Donald Trump is the product of our tabloid and exploitative media culture. He was picked off the pop-culture ash heap by Jeff Zucker, the current head of CNN and former head of NBC. He was sculpted by bloodthirsty professional wrestling crowds and the celebrity-loving New York media. He is a reckoning for a country whose people have embraced ridiculous reality television, where individuals humiliate each other for dollars while we tune in for an endorphin release. The New York Times fed off of all this, and it still does today.
In 2016, Donald Trump, at the time a celebrity host for NBC, was vaulted from reality television to the presidency with the help of unprecedented media coverage, an estimated $5.6 billion of which he got for free. His empty podium became a staple on several cable networks and the New York Times was there to cover every rally, every insult, every declaration and every escalator ride. After election night 2016, however, the Times’s tone changed dramatically. The executive editor offered a mea culpa just days after election night — ‘We’re sorry Hillary blew this for us.’ The Times’s practices, however, have not changed.
The New York Times still loves the reality show. They love the Bronco chases. The not-so-dirty not-so-secret is the New York Times and the rest of opposition media not only love Donald Trump — they need Donald Trump. Their endorsement special was not about Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or even Pete Buttigieg. It was an Apprentice-style showcase, intended to show the president that they are willing to play his style of game as long as he is. For every tweet declaring them ‘the enemy of the people’, Trump will still pick up the phone and share a laugh with Maggie Haberman, who will of course indulge his ego to keep her byline on the front page. They know what Trump does is a game, but they want you to believe they aren’t the ones playing along.
The New York Times gave that entire game away on Sunday night. Candidates entered, took their seats before a panel of judges and pleaded to let them keep their jobs — and it was all broadcast to a national audience. The production design is different and the celebrities were replaced with politicians, but the judges remain who they were an election cycle ago. For as long as they deem it necessary, the Trump era will continue. With or without him.