You wouldn’t trust a music critic who’s buddies with the band, nor should you trust a tech reporter who hoots and hollers whenever Tim Cook takes the stage. And you definitely, absolutely should be suspicious of a political reporter who sits down with President Donald Trump and looks as if he’s meeting his favorite baseball player.
Axios and HBO gave viewers the first look at a new television show by teaming up with the White House to unveil a new entry in its xenophobic domestic policy lineup.
Along these lines, Tuesday morning held a sort of public relations convergence of interests that typifies the worst of political reporting: Axios and HBO gave viewers the first look at a new television show by teaming up with the White House to unveil a new entry in its xenophobic domestic policy lineup.
This sort of journalism is among the most obsequious — perhaps tied with tech coverage, at times — but the new video clip debuted today by Axios may be the ne plus ultra of media toadying. Axios has become a political media sensation in a very short amount of time, excelling at both cranking out access-based White House scoops and servility, like some sort of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue-based Roomba.
Today’s video interview snippet, plucked from the upcoming Axios show on HBO, put the website’s bright star Jonathan Swan in a chair across from Trump. Prompted by Swan, Trump announced an innovative plan to bar nonwhite infants from attaining U.S. citizenship. It was, in Swan’s words, an “exciting” moment to behold:
Excited to share with you the first snippet from our interview with President Trump yesterday, ahead of the launch of Axios’ HBO show this Sunday evening. 1/2
— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) October 30, 2018
“Excited to share” is usually how one begins a sentence about a pregnancy or a promotion, not the revelation of a plot to deny citizenship to newborns. The families affected by this attempt to subvert the 14th Amendment might have other words for the announcement, but not Swan, who took the news (and his ability to report it first) as a big, shiny win — merely another dose of stellar exclusive digital content to be consumed, a brilliant bit of multimedia cross-promotion.
The video itself, however, is somehow even worse than the tweet. We see firsthand just how pumped up Swan is to discuss Trump’s long-term ethnic exclusion strategies with the big man himself. At one point, Swan cajoles him into explaining just how Trump might actually execute this unilateral change to the Constitution, prompting Trump to speculate that he might use an executive order. “Exactly!” exclaims Swan, so amped up that he is literally unable to stay in his seat. Palpably thrilled, Swan points an eager finger at the president. “Tell me more!” he says next, all too cheerily, as if he’s conducting a Q&A with The Avengers at Comic-Con — and not being given the opportunity to interrogate the president of the United States. Swan is literally grinning throughout: The feeling that a high-five is imminent is hard to shake off.
This is grotesque on the face of it. Politics — particularly the politics of the day — aren’t supposed to be fun, nor exciting, nor any other chipper keywords you might feed into Netflix on a rainy evening. American politics in our present day are anguishing, alienating, bitter, bleak, cynical, and hateful. To take this opportunity to challenge Trump on his immigration policies at this time — when, in just one example, there’s a very good argument to be made that these policies just led to the worst act of anti-Semitic carnage in American history — and not only squander it but enjoy it, that’s something worse than monstrous. “What a revolting display,” Splinter’s Libby Watson remarked. Watson also noted that “when the president says other countries don’t have birthright citizenship, which is a lie, Swan says nothing, and Axios’ story was only updated after publication to reflect that reality.” Revolting, indeed.
It’s not that this is just terrible journalism or that Swan should consider nurturing his gifts for public relations in another sphere. What we’re watching here is a perverse amalgam of news, social media, entertainment, and the White House. It is truly a cross-promotional tour de force, but one that leaves a sour taste, a worse example of a familiar genre: It is a new kind of product launch. We’re watching the residue left behind as media industry stability evaporates, when “scoops” at all costs is one of the few currencies left, where shame is a luxury. This is truly the Trump effect at its greatest strength: The president’s lack of shame has always been his biggest selling point for fans, and Axios, in its bid for its own fans, is cribbing not only his style, but his politics as well. Axios wholesale adopted the big right-wing unveil as an audience-building tool.
Perhaps it’s too much to ask that our colleagues in D.C. not count themselves among enthusiasts for this brand of far-right politics, but, please, at least feel ashamed enough to stay in your chair.