Donald Trump’s relationship with the political press is similar to that of a shark’s with its cadre of pilot fish: symbiotic. In the same way that the little entrepreneurial fish clears the predator of parasites, the press provides Trump with the lifeblood of publicity and attention without which he would wither away. In turn, media is afforded the essential sustenance of viewers, listeners, readers, and clicks. The news environment in August is about as barren as is the open water, and both the press and the pilot fish have adapted to it so as to eke out a subsistence living. Trump’s rapport with the press differs, however, in one substantial way from that of these two famously mutualist sea creatures. If it were a perfect comparison, every so often the shark would lean over and mercilessly consume one of its passengers. There is risk in this strategy. The mutually beneficial compact is not a suicide pact. When faced with sufficiently adverse conditions for long enough, even the pilot fish would be forced to adapt. Similar, there are a handful of signs that suggest the media’s love affair with the celebrity Republican candidate is headed for a rocky patch.
As has become predictable, Donald Trump dominated the news cycle on Tuesday. The political media displayed extraordinary deference to the Republican presidential candidate when all three cable networks carried one of his typically rambling press conferences. Most of them then went on to cover the campaign stop speech he delivered in the following hour – CNN broadcast it in its entirety. It was a spectacle — they always are — and it’s perhaps understandable that these displays are covered with zeal by the press. They are, if nothing else, quite entertaining.
During that press conference, Trump reacted controversially when he was bombarded by activist hectoring masquerading as a line of questions from the famously partial Univision anchor Jorge Ramos. Rather than endure the badgering from this overtly biased reporter, a condition that comes with the job of running for high office, one of Trump’s security guards emerged from the crowd and ushered Ramos out of the room. “Go back to Univision,” Trump was heard saying as Ramos was shown the door.
Conservatives cheered at the treatment of a reporter they rightly regard as an unreasonable adversary, but they should not have. Ramos is spectacularly influential among the Hispanic community. A study conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013 found that Hispanics name Ramos as one of their community’s most influential figures, alongside individuals like Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor and Pope Francis. Even though he was eventually allowed back into the room to ask his questions with a level of decorum Trump believed was his due, Ramos’ summary deportation from the press conference “back to Univision” was a perfect metaphor for Trump’s approach to the immigration debate. It surely won’t help his favorability rating with Hispanics, which Gallup recently found was a staggering 51 points underwater.
Of course, journalists also overreacted to this event. On Twitter, political reporters bristled over the offense to their colleague and waxed grandiose about the sullied sanctity of their profession. This same effrontery was not taken when Barack Obama feigned great personal insult after CBS reporter Major Garrett asked the president if he was “content” with the terms of the Iran nuclear deal that left four Americans prisoners of the regime in Tehran. Members of Garrett’s own profession scolded him for having crossed a line. And when The Daily Caller’s Neil Munro aggressively probes Democratic politicians, he is never the beneficiary of the doubt from his fellow reporters. When Munro barked questions at the president at a Rose Garden event in 2012 in a manner virtually identical to Ramos, he was scolded by the White House Correspondents Association president who called the reporter’s behavior “discourteous.” The organization did, however, decline petitions to bar The Daily Caller from the White House pool rotation. How magnanimous.
Univision isn’t the only network that has found itself on Trump’s ample bad side in recent days. The premiere cable news outlet, Fox News Channel, also finds its relationship with Trump increasingly strained.
Donald Trump spent a conspicuous amount of time after the Fox-hosted first GOP debate complaining about his treatment at the hands of prime time host and journalist Megyn Kelly. The reality show host and presidential candidate eventually took to rival CNN to litigate his grievance (where he obliquely accused Kelly of pursuing her probing line of questioning because she was struggling with the physical effects of menstruation).
“I assured him that we will continue to cover this campaign with fairness and balance,” Fox News chief Roger Ailes said revealing a conciliatory call he made to the candidate. “We had a blunt but cordial conversation and the air has been cleared.” That truce was illusory. With no warning, Donald Trump took to his Twitter account on Monday night to resume his vicious and personal attacks on Megyn Kelly. He snapped at her, attacked her competence, suggested she should be replaced, and retweeted a fan that called her a “bimbo.”
This unprovoked escalation of hostilities was apparently too much for Fox News. “Donald Trump rarely apologizes, although in this case, he should,” Ales added, noting that the candidate’s “unprovoked attack” on one of their journalists was “as unacceptable as it is disturbing.”
For a candidate who is so reluctant to admit fault that he even boasted about his refusal to ask even God for forgiveness, it was always unlikely that Trump would issue an apology to Megyn Kelly or anyone else. True to form, Trump refused to back down. “I do not think Megyn Kelly is a quality journalist,” he wrote in a statement. “I think her questioning of me, despite all of the polls saying I won the debate, was very unfair.” He echoed his criticisms of the network at Tuesday’s press conference following the ejection of Ramos. “I think Fox treats me terribly. A lot of the people that like me think they treat me terribly,” he said. “When people treat me badly, I don’t let them forget it.” All the aspiring generalissimo was lacking was shoulder epaulettes and a peaked cap.
How do these confrontations end? Fox News is in a difficult position; the network can hardly afford to bar Trump and cede the associated ratings to its competitors. Univision may soon find itself in the position of the Des Moines Register: without credentials or access to the candidate. Trump might believe that he can black out whatever media outlets he believe have offended him. Our shark is keenly aware of how necessary he has become to the survival of his cadre of pilot fish. At a certain point, however, the broadcast networks have a responsibility to the society they purport to serve. How much national comity must be sacrificed in the name of entertainment? Precisely what level of coarseness in the country’s dialogue must we endure in service to Nielsen ratings? Fox took the first step in a noble direction. Univision will follow suit out of necessity. The sooner Trump is isolated and made to adopt some common standards of decency, the better. Only those he depends on can impose this behavior change, and Trump depends on no one — save the press.