‘The quaint artifact of name recognition’

The Atlantic’s (and, occasionally, NPR’s) James Fallows piles on the political media with this takedown of the coverage of Donald Trump:

Speaking of carnival barkers: Every member of the political press knows that the chance of Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States is zero. I say that the chance of Sarah Palin becoming president is extremely low but greater than zero. I will take any bet at any odds against Trump becoming president, for reasons I’ll boil down to this: the same circumstances that would make Obama so vulnerable that a Trump could beat him (economic, political, military, or social chaos of any kind you want to imagine), would simultaneously motivate the Republican party to choose a “real” candidate with the best chance of winning the election and running the government. That is, if the Republicans think they have a serious chance to win, they’re not going to blow that chance with Trump.

My real point is: knowing for sure that Trump’s “lead” in the GOP polls now is a quaint artifact of name recognition, and knowing that there is no chance that his “colorful” background and prima donna manner could stand the long grueling, humiliating ordeal of the primaries and the caucuses and the endless interviews, how long will the press keep acting as the megaphone for this carnival barker? Why aren’t they jumping all over him now, for the patent idiocy of his “birther” claim, rather than acting as if somehow he has scored a point by making Obama react? In reality, he’ll be on the stage with the press’ megaphone until people get bored with him — which gradually but undeniably has happened to Palin.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen infatuation with a candidate. Two words: Ross Perot. Two more: Jesse Ventura. Celebrity candidates fill the vacuum of an election season that starts too soon.

In many ways, politicians have nobody but themselves to blame for the coverage of people they privately mock. As I’ve mentioned many times previously over the years, Jesse Ventura raced to the top the day he was allowed to participate in a debate with Skip Humphrey and Norm Coleman in Brainerd in October 1998 (Listen in RealAudio). They spoke “politician.” Ventura didn’t.

He also didn’t fade by the time election day came along. And shortly after his election, local media — including MPR — started doing something they’d rarely done before: accompanied the state’s governor on trade missions. Trust me. It wasn’t to cover the significant commercial issues between Minnesota and Japan, or China, or Mexico, or Cuba. It was because there was always a pretty fair chance Jesse Ventura would say something outrageous, and nobody wanted to miss it.

That’s just the way things work in political coverage and when President Obama complained about the situation today, it wasn’t the first time he figured it out, either.

Ross Perot knew this, too, in the race for president almost 20 years ago. Months before the election, Perot was drawing a respectable 21 percent in the polls, and getting a fair amount of coverage. It peaked in the summer at about 39 percent. He was entertaining and could be counted on for a great sound clip.

Eventually, stories came out about Perot being a control freak, and his campaign collapsed when he alleged the George H.W. Bush campaign was out to sabotage his daughter’s wedding.

It’s a vicious cycle. “Celebrity candidates,” knowing they can’t win, have the luxury of saying outrageous things, get coverage for saying outrageous things, raise their profile because of the coverage, show up in polls, and then get more coverage because they show up in the polls.

When does the cycle end? When news organizations get bored with the story line and turn on the celebrity whose political swagger they helped create. Ventura’s genius — if there was any — was jumping into the campaign so late, he didn’t give the media time to get over its infatuation with him.