Open any newspaper or news website, and over half the stories will inevitably be about President Donald Trump. Recent tidbits from MSNBC: the impeachment inquiry, Ukraine, what Anthony Scaramucci thinks about Trump, a newly released book written by an anonymous Trump administration official, bribery and more things related to impeachment and Trump.
Focusing on the scandals and crimes of the most powerful person in the world is important and sensible, of course, especially so when a hugely significant impeachment inquiry process is currently underway.
But mainstream media outlets seem to have an almost pathological obsession with Trump and the multiple dramas involving him. Their coverage of Trump is in many ways a distraction from stories that are more significant and that directly impact ordinary Americans’ lives.
Even before the impeachment inquiry, mainstream media incessantly covered Trump. Throughout last year and much of this year, popular MSNBC host Rachel Maddow mused endlessly about the apparent (but ultimately unproven) collusion between the Russian government and Trump.
Maddow even peddled bizarre conspiracy theories, issuing a dramatic warning that the Russian authorities could shut down power supply in the U.S. and implying that Trump’s press briefings were directly dictated by the Kremlin, as Ross Barkan notes in The Guardian.
“I’m happy to admit that I’m obsessed with Russia,” she told The New York Times. “I realize it’s controversial, and people give me a lot of grief for focusing on it. But I make no apologies. I think it’s absolutely compelling.”
Imagine what our current political discourse would look like if Maddow and other journalists with influential platforms spent even a tenth of their Trump-focused energy on stories and events that actually impact people’s lives.
I am not saying that Trump’s impeachment isn’t of importance to ordinary Americans’ lives. Of course it is.
I am saying, though, that media outlets focus on the impeachment and scandals surrounding Trump like a breathless TV thriller while ignoring the real costs of his presidency.
While huge swatches of California burned, mainstream media didn’t cover Trump’s devastating move last week to formally pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement enough.
They barely said a word about a recent U.S. drone strike that killed more than 30 civilians in Afghanistan who were resting after a day’s labor in the fields.
They rarely write in-depth stories about the fact that families separated under Trump’s immigration policies have still not been reunited.
Instead, we have been fed with an endless supply of stories about Stormy Daniels and Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr because those apparently are the people who matter; those are the only stories that matter.
Part of the reason for the corporate media’s intense focus on Trump and his scandals is that it’s good for their ratings. Maddow’s show averaged 1.1 million viewers a night in her first eight years on air but shot to 2.7 million after Trump’s inauguration, according to The New York Times. After speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry, Maddow’s ratings rose to 3.3 million.
These figures stand in stark contrast to the performance of state and local newspapers, which, thanks to declining ad revenue, media consolidation and increasing interest in social and digital media, have largely been decimated over recent years.
About 20 percent of all metro and community newspapers in the U.S. have gone out of business, and about 1,300 counties have completely lost news coverage, according to Poynter. National newspapers and cable TV outlets often don’t have reporters who are rooted in local communities and have the expertise to write in-depth stories on the important political events happening at the state and local levels.
As a result, we hear over and over about Washington, D.C.’s sexy politics and little about the fact that every day, over 130 people die in this country because they overdose on opioids. Or that teenage suicide rates increased nearly 56 percent from 2007 to 2017.
Or the pretty outrageous fact that California Governor Gavin Newsom campaigned on a fracking ban, only to forget about it after coming into office. We don’t hear much about the fact that millions of people have died in the U.S. because they could not pay their medical bills. All of these would be page-one stories in a sane world.
The upshot of ignoring every other news story in the U.S. and focusing exclusively on impeachment or the latest Trump drama is also that we have come to think all our problems began, and will end, with Trump. We act as though once Trump is booted out of office, we can dust off our hands and go to bed.
Never mind that deportations, illegal wars and reckless political and economic policies flourished under previous administrations and that Trump’s presidency is only part of a larger system of injustice, greed and corruption that has defined American politics for decades.
Media outlets have actively contributed to this dangerous amnesia and treated politics as distant dramas rather than harsh realities that bear down on people’s everyday lives. It’s time they ended their obsession with Trump and undertook their professed task of speaking truth to power and covering stories that actually affect ordinary people in this country.
It’s not too late.
Sarthak Sharma PO ’20 is from Kathmandu, Nepal. He’s an economics major and spends most of his time sending messages to Claremont Crushes.