With Weinstein and Parkland, the Trump news cycle hits a different stride

February 28, 2018
Image by Moritz320 via Pixabay.

As common wisdom has it, Donald Trump has squeezed the life out of the news cycle like a boa constrictor. Important stories that would normally run for days often fizzle out after a few hours as the media moves on to Trump’s latest tweet or outrage. As former New York Times Editor Jill Abramson wrote for CJR in the fall, “On some days, there are so many stories and related features on Trump on the Times app that my thumb aches from scrolling to find news on something else.”

It’s perhaps surprising, then, that two recent stories have seized the cycle and not let go: The Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to bring down powerful and famous men, and the Parkland, Florida, school shooting is driving an unusually long and bitter debate over gun laws. These stories’ staying power is impressive—in the past, sexual misconduct and shootings did not prove as durable, even when they didn’t have Trump mania to compete with.

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These stories, of course, have important non-Trump drivers—like the sheer scale and historical sweep of abuse perpetrated by Weinstein and others, the media-ready celebrity of many victims, and, in the case of Parkland, the extraordinary, articulate activism of student survivors. They are both, however, Trump-adjacent: tied inextricably to the president’s personal conduct and maverick political style. “Each of those stories has had legs. I think the reason for that is they’re very important, compelling developments, and that they are not completely separated from that which we’ve become so obsessed with,” says Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

Weinstein and Parkland have presented the media with an opportunity to move beyond the initial, saturated Trump news cycle without losing sight of Trump altogether. Many reporters and editors long scorned reactive scuttling after every Trump tweet and distraction tactic, but have had trouble pivoting to weightier matters—the president’s unconventional behavior is important, and in any case, this type of coverage has been good for subscriptions and clicks. Weinstein and Parkland have allowed those journalists to frame Trump’s shamelessness, unscripted tweeting, and braggadocio around substantive issues external to Trump.

The ongoing Weinstein story, in particular, lets the press move forward and backward at once: It was the first story since the election to generate long-term momentum independently of Trump, but also brought unresolved allegations about the president’s personal life back to the forefront of the national conversation. “Weinstein was a Democrat, but his behavior as a bully and crude-talking ‘Master of the Universe’ was reminiscent of Trump,” says New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “More importantly, the stories tapped into a swell of anger among American women….that the charges about Trump and women didn’t matter to voters.”

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The accelerated gun debate in the wake of Parkland has a less visceral connection to Trump—it’s about policy, and it’s likely that any Republican (or even Democratic) president would be facing similar pressures to act in the wake of what happened. When Trump has made it distinctive he’s largely done so at his own invitation: through his early tweets appearing to blame victims and the FBI for the massacre, and a more recent claim that he would have “run in [to the school] even if I didn’t have a weapon.”

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But Weinstein and Parkland feel somehow similar. Both have evoked a tenor of debate that trades not in piecemeal solutions, but in unapologetic “this must end” righteousness. Weinstein and Parkland are both fundamentally stories about activism; about #MeToo and #NeverAgain as much as named perpetrators or sites of violence. In that sense, they respond to—and draw media attention because of—an angry, polarized zeitgeist that Trump has done much to stoke, if not create. “The context of people rising up against injustice….makes people more likely to click on a story,” says Khanya Khondlo Mtshali, a freelance writer on social justice in the digital space. “It’s interesting to see how activism is a part of the daily conversation now.” (While it remains to be seen how much longer Parkland will command attention, it’s already bypassed the longevity of the Las Vegas shooting story, for instance.)

The Weinstein and Parkland stories thus don’t represent a departure from the Trump-saturated news cycle as much as a second iteration of it. “My sense is that the fascination with Trump has been robust for a real long time,” says Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple. “[But] Trump is a man of great repetition.…you can’t help but tune out to some parts of it.” Prolonged coverage of Weinstein and Parkland scratches the ongoing Trump itch, while also permitting journalists and readers to break the breathless cycle of “he tweeted what?!” coverage.

It’s a good thing if this second Trump news cycle doubles down on weightier “Trump-adjacent” stories about policy and injustice. When looking at the Weinstein and Parkland cycles, however, it’s worth remembering that Trump still nourishes these stories by proximity, and that they drift with the angry cultural currents he drives. “When I think about [the media’s] survival in a post-Trump world, I wonder: Do stories contain the same sort of outrage after Trump?” asks Rutenberg. “And, if so, do they still drive this intense interest?”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.