There are a few things going on when looking at why bullies get media coverage. One is that the media needs content, and whether Joseph McCarthy or Donald John Trump, it is willing to publicize a bully who is good at attracting eyes. The media may hate the bully, find the bully unworthy of publishing, but they will cover the bully because the pressure is there and they are competing with others who will also publish the bully.
But there’s also a kind of expectation of success. There are, sadly, successful bullies (for both damnable and reasonable definitions of success). If someone is seen as successful, whatever their merits, they deserve coverage, the thinking goes. Media will happily spread the myth of success even before checking if it exists, if they check at all. And if a bully is actually successful, all the more reason to give them coverage. People need to know about success in all its forms, don’t they? The media asks: “Who are we to act as Darwin in the face of a degenerate’s survival?”
Politicians learn quickly that being a bully has a number of important qualities:
- You don’t have to be an actual success.
- You don’t have to promote policies with any chance of enactment or success.
- You won’t be held accountable for lying.
This kind of alternative to honest politicking is surely enticing to anyone who’s tried to craft policy, negotiate it into law, and maintain programs through hard work. Bullying is cheap and easy, like junk food. And the media has plenty of room in its daily gut for ding-dongs like Donald John Trump and Joseph McCarthy.
The media is built on running its trial balloons, finding out if a vein of reporting, however horrible and wretched and worthless, will attract eyes, and then milking it. For every lie, you can report the lie itself, the reaction to the lie, the doubling-down, and the people who believe or applaud the lie. You get a lot of mileage off of a little bullshit.
It’s not only political bullies. Business bullies get plenty of coverage.
If anything is clear from the past five years, it’s that many in our media learned the wrong lessons and still does not have a better set of practices to offer us. They will gladly amplify bullshit if the bullshit draws an audience. They will continue to give aid and comfort to enemies of democracy, even as they chronicle its throes. They do the same with things like climate change or opioids or the crisis in policing.
Perceived success is a badge that lets bad behavior skate, and bullying is a boon to media storytelling. Take airports as a key example. Air travel is hell on our climate, and yet the industry gets all sorts of special treatment by media and government by virtue of the fact that both fly around a lot. Airports, as key transportation hubs, are one of the few remaining examples of architectural pride in some cities, and they are often named for important leaders of the past. Airports, and airlines in general, are bullies of a sort. Yet the media provides them ample coverage and cover even as the climate suffers.
The success of air travel is a peculiar kind of success, when one factors in the climate effects, and yet even those who wholly support environmentalism often fly about as though it weren’t a problem, perhaps buying some indulgences—carbon offsets—if they do anything at all. But their choices are limited. They could try to travel by ground as much as possible, but ground transportation is itself mismanaged and slow. They could not travel, but they are accustomed to their own personal and professional expectations. They are, in effect, bullied into flying even if they know better.