Steve Bannon is a shameless grifter and fringe crank who, like many other former top aides to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, was recently hit with federal criminal charges. But the many-shirted would-be Machiavelli offered up what stands as the single best explanation for the Trump team’s communications strategy. “The Democrats don't matter,” he explained to Bloomberg’s Michael Lewis a year into Trump’s presidency. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."
Bannon’s quote explains how Trumpist propaganda creates a fog of disinformation that overwhelms the press and disorients the public. But it also points to a simpler media vulnerability: The newshole is finite. There are only so many column inches in a newspaper, so many news segments in a broadcast, and so many journalists available to report out stories.
The coverage of Trump’s Tuesday night campaign rally in Pennsylvania shows how Trump exploits this vulnerability. Amid a deadly pandemic, the president spoke before a huge audience of supporters, many of whom did not wear masks. He offered up a bigoted attack on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) -- who was born in Somalia, left as a child refugee, and is a naturalized citizen -- saying, “She’s telling us how to run our country. How did you do where you came from? How was your country doing?” He also glorified violence against journalists, calling it “a beautiful sight” when law enforcement officials assault reporters during protests.
The first time Trump held a rally during the pandemic, it was a major news story. The first time he offered racist attacks on Omar, it was a major news story. And the first time he praised violence against reporters, it was a major news story.
But now the zone has been flooded.
It would be like, almost, if he started doing a Mexican rapists soliloquy again; racist messaging from him and thus the WH is just administration policy now, and has been for years, that he’s raised the bar so high on what constitutes “news” that goes beyond him drawing a breath
— Asawin Suebsaeng (@swin24) September 23, 2020
Scan the front pages of major news websites this morning and you’ll have to search hard to find mention of any of this. The three major morning broadcast news shows barely mentioned the large, maskless crowd (ABC’s Good Morning America offered the most coverage, with anchor George Stephanopoulos asking Trump’s surgeon general about it). And none of them referenced Trump’s comments about Omar or journalists. With limited time, they prioritized a different comment -- his mocking of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing a mask.
The more Trump engages in corruption, bigotry, and demagoguery, the less attention each individual depravity receives. Journalists end up dealing with the limits of the newshole by focusing on new abominations. So, the more frequently Trump makes the same deviant remark -- no matter how unhinged -- the less attention it receives (at this point, journalists barely notice when Trump accuses a Democrat of treason). This practice ends up normalizing Trump’s monstrous behavior and rewards the Bannon strategy by limiting the press’ agenda-setting power.
Trump and his allies have overwhelmed the system. There’s just too much shit.