On August 14, the evening of former US President Donald Trump’s fourth criminal indictment of 2023, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow hosted former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the indictments and the general domestic state of affairs.
In the Georgia case, Trump stands accused along with 18 others of attempting to subvert the 2020 election. Maddow’s 9pm show drew an unprecedented 3.93 million viewers.
One clip from the interview, posted to MSNBC’s social media networks, is titled “Hillary Clinton laments political system that rewards theatre over results”. In it, she explains that Trump’s successor Joe Biden is “not a performer in a political theatre sense”, which renders it more difficult to disseminate news of his alleged achievements as president across the “splintered information ecosystem” that dominates in the US – where most Americans “don’t get their news from MSNBC” but rather from “social media, if they get any news at all”.
Clinton wagers that, since talking about national infrastructure and other critical matters is “boring”, media venues choose to “talk about, you know, Donald Trump or one of these other people who do nothing but give us negative messages, [be]cause that is so much more exciting”.
Never mind that this is exactly what, you know, Maddow and Clinton were doing.
MSNBC’s breathless coverage of the Trump indictments has given a considerable boost to its ratings – after all, theatre sells. In terms of prime-time ratings, the network has been intermittently beating Fox News, the reigning champion of cheap sensationalism and traditional go-to outfit for tabloidesque drama.
As Vanity Fair recently mused: “MSNBC is having its Super Bowl with Trump’s indictments” – the August 14 indictment in Georgia drew more viewers to the network, from 9pm to 3am, than to Fox News and CNN combined.
For the occasion of the ex-president’s subsequent arrest on August 24, MSNBC was standing by with Maddow, Chris Hayes, and other prized commentators ready to commentate on every aspect of the spectacle. The network followed Trump’s plane touching down in Atlanta and the ensuing excursion to Fulton County Jail.
To be sure, MSNBC is not the only liberal US media outlet making a spectacle of the former president’s never-ending political soap opera; it is merely the network that has, for the moment, most perfected the dubious artform. CNN, previously Trump’s preferred nemesis, has been left in the proverbial prime-time dust.
Back in April, when Trump was arraigned in a Manhattan courtroom on 34 felony counts in connection with a hush-money scheme, The New Republic’s Alex Shephard observed that “no one fills the gaping void of cable news’ airtime quite like Donald Trump”.
Marvelling at the preposterous amount of time CNN had devoted to a discussion of the courtroom’s doors, Shephard went on to remark that Trump “may no longer be in peak form, but when it comes to filling the desperate need of those with nothing, in particular, to talk about, he still has moves”.
Of course, the issue is not that Trump’s antics are categorically unnewsworthy, or that the media should not report on the first time in history that a former or current US president has been charged with criminal activity – especially when said person has his sights on the upcoming presidential term, as well.
But the obsessive coverage converts the “news” into a sort of addictive reality TV show-type affair, while also serving to distract from the fact that there is plenty of bad news in the United States aside from Donald Trump.
Biden may not be well-versed in “political theatre”, to borrow Hillary Clinton’s words, but he has certainly managed to preside over all manner of national tragedy, ranging from criminally unaffordable healthcare to the ongoing epidemic of homelessness to an unprecedently ginormous military budget that ensures the country will continue making life hell for people near and far.
Indeed, liberal media outlets dependent on Trumpian theatre to boost ratings are peddling a superficial reality: one in which the overwhelming focus on Trump – and his rendering as a quasi-comical made-for-TV villain – avoids any substantive analysis of the roots of US ills, or of the longstanding bipartisan commitment to sociopathy.
Fox News, for its part, continues its usual exercises in unhinged hyperbolic caricature. In one August segment on the topic of Trump’s jailhouse mugshot and how the Georgia indictment was “driven by a ‘political agenda’”, co-host Carley Shimkus declared: “You just have to wonder what that mugshot will do to the presidential election … clearly the president [ie Trump] thinks it will benefit him because he released it on his Twitter account”.
As they say, any publicity is good publicity – which is definitely something to keep in mind when considering the current relentless coverage by ostensibly anti-Trump media.
Trump has, meanwhile, waived formal arraignment in Georgia, which had been scheduled for September 6 and was sure to generate loads of media sensationalism and perhaps some more reports about doors.
Regardless, rest assured that the show will go on.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.