Tabloid Ethics In The Time Of Trump
One of the most popular and well-known regular columns in the celebrity-gossip rag Us Weekly is also one of its silliest: “Stars — They’re Just Like Us!” The feature showcases photos of celebrities engaging in everyday activities that are noteworthy precisely because they are so mundanely normal. (Sample captions include: “They choose paper over plastic!”, “They pay for parking!”, and “They go to the airport!”)
It’s a goofy feature, but also one that in many ways perfectly encapsulates what Us Weekly and other celebrity gossip publications like People, OK!, and Closer are all about. The mission of these pubs is simple: exalt celebrities while attempting to bring readers closer to them. And so, we’re treated not only to photos of A-listers paying the meter or catching their flight, but to “inside looks” at their private lives, and interviews in which they share their favorite movies, open up (clandestinely) about their love lives, or reveal how they mended a broken heart.
In many ways, this is a relatively innocuous mission, particularly when compared to more incendiary, lie-peddling tabloids like The National Enquirer or Star. But problematically, this approach has also been applied over the years to presidential candidates and sitting presidents. Cover stories about Obama have included “Exclusive Photos: The Obamas At Home” in People; “What She’s Really Like: Michelle’s Private World” in OK!; and “Barack Obama’s Girls: ‘I Think I’m A Pretty Cool Dad’” in Us Weekly. People magazine has taken us “inside” the ranch where George W. and Laura Bush live, and offered glowing coverage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George H.W. and Barbara Bush.
“Presidents,” the implicit message goes, “They’re just like us!”
And this, to some extent, has always been problematic. After all, there’s a marked difference between glorifying and sanitizing a movie star, and doing the same with a world leader who has influence over millions of peoples’ lives. But never has this mission raised more red flags than at this particular juncture in history. Because never in the history of these publications has there been a president as dangerous as Donald Trump.
It’s easy to underestimate the influence of celebrity magazines, but to do so would be a mistake: Us Weekly and People, for instance, each claim a monthly readership of around 50 million people. And while tabloids like Star or National Enquirer are known to be outrageous, these outlets are relatively trusted, boasting readers who turn to them for weekly escapism and, yes, news.
All of which is important to consider when assessing the unscrupulousness of these publications’ sanitizing coverage of Trump — who, it’s important to remember, launched his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists,” has been repeatedly accused of sexual assault, has perhaps not paid taxes in two decades, has openly mocked a disabled person, and was officially endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
People magazine began rolling out “Hey, it’s just the Trumps, no biggie” propaganda while the rest of us were just starting to come to terms with what the next four years would hold. The magazine’s Babies vertical published a story on November 9 entitled, “27 Photos of Ivanka Trump and Her Family That are Way Too Cute” (emphasis in the original). The very first photo is one of Ivanka with her husband, Jared Kushner, and their oldest daughter Arabella on their way “to vote for [Arabella’s] grandfather for president.”
People also ran a Trump cover in April asking “Who Is The Real Donald Trump?” that, while it addressed issues with his character and record, also engaged in plenty of sugarcoating. In the article, Trump’s friends described him as “caring and kind” and “thoughtful and measured,” and Donald himself proclaimed, “I’m a much nicer person than people would think” — the quote the magazine highlighted in its online version of the story.
Most egregiously yet, People quickly rolled out a Trump cover after he was elected, presenting the world with a glamorous version of the president-elect. On the highly criticized cover, Trump is pictured in a navy suit, a red tie, and a white shirt, smiling softly into the camera, appearing to stride forward. If someone had been living under a rock for the last few decades, they might never know that this photo was of a person who maliciously targeted immigrants, people of color, women, and pretty much every other marginalized group at every possible opportunity.
In the days since, the softball anecdotes about him and his sweet family have continued, with headlines like “Inside Melania’s Decision to Stay in N.Y.C. Instead of the White House: ‘She Loves Her Independent Life‘” and “How Donald Trump Told PEOPLE That Son Barron Found a White House Move ‘a Little Scary.’”
People’s approach to Trump is all the more insidious when you consider the fact that one of the publication’s own reporters, Natasha Stoynoff, published a disturbing retelling of a time when she was “attacked” by Donald Trump. In an attempt to rationalize its cover, People’s editor-in-chief, Jess Cagle, wrote an internal memo to his staff, saying:
“We’ve been called out for trying to pander or ‘normalize’ Trump, just weeks after we published a story, by former PEOPLE writer Natasha Stoynoff, about being physically attacked by Trump in 2005. . . . Some readers are sickened to see Trump on the cover. Others are thrilled by it. In any case, it seemed wrong to put anyone other than the president-elect on the cover this week. He was elected president. We can’t pretend it didn’t happen.”
Of course, this is true — the media can’t pretend it didn’t happen. But it’s disingenuous to assert that a cover and story where Trump seems like someone Mr. Rogers might have been buddies with was the only way to go.
People, of course, is hardly alone in presenting our president-elect and his family in this sanitized way. Us Magazine’s recent stories include, “Ivanka Trump Posts Heartfelt Thanksgiving Message With Husband and Children: I Feel Incredibly Blessed.” And earlier this year, in lieu of actual reporting, the publication invited his wife, Melania, to write a gushing cover story entitled, “The Only Donald I Know.”
Certainly, we can expect this approach to continue; tabloid magazines will, in a serious breach of ethics, continue to try to sell the American public on the idea that the Trump family is “normal.” They will try to cute-ify Melania and Ivanka (who supported her father’s campaign and was in fact the one to introduce him before he gave his infamous campaign announcement speech). And they will try to sell us different kinds of Trump: grandpa Trump, husband and father Trump, underdog Trump, among myriad other false Trumps.
True, tabloids are unlikely to ever go so far as to make bold political statements on their covers — but they can mitigate the spread of the propagandist treatment of a white supremacist president-to-be. And one way they can do this is by taking cues from their more reputable counterparts.
Plenty of traditional, respected media sources, of course, have similarly, problematically airbrushed Trump and his policies — like, recently, the Associated Press and NPR’s Morning Edition. But others have been more pointed in taking on Trump and the dangers he poses to the democracy, offering an approach People or Us Weekly could emulate.
In the wake of Trump’s election, New York Magazine, for instance, ran a victory cover that was bold, grabbing, and most importantly, accurate. The cover used a close-up black and white photo of Trump looking hideous with the word “loser” sprawled across his face in all caps — appropriating a term Trump himself has hurled at anyone who opposes him, while making it clear that his policies do not align with the values of the American public. Compare this with the airbrushed, glorifying People cover, and the dangers of fluffy, sanitized reporting become chillingly clear.
It’s not difficult to discern why People, Us Weekly, and those like them have resorted to propagandizing Trump; in addition to a milquetoast ethos that seeks not to offend, there’s profit to consider. The issue with People‘s post-election Trump-celebratory cover story, for instance, sold 20% more copies than the same issue the year before. And as CBS head Les Moonves made painfully clear made painfully clear with his “It may not be good for America” quote, that kind of financial upside is hard to pass up . . . ethics be damned.
Much has been made about how reputable media outlets have a responsibility to, as Christine Amanpour recently put it, be “truthful, not neutral.” And certainly, examining the reporting of outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN is crucial, as such publications have played their own chilling role in normalizing Trump. But we mustn’t overlook the role celebrity-gossip publications can play in shaping public opinion as well, in more subtle but no less potent ways.
These tabloids may not be in the business of taking a political stand, but to treat a politician as dangerous as Trump like just another celebrity — replete with soft-focused images and heartwarming tales of familial bliss — is to play a significant role in normalizing him, making him seem relatable to the typical American. Who’s going to want to resist a man who loves his grandkids, whose wife cherishes him, who has such an adorable family?
But here’s the thing: Trump is not a celebrity (though “former reality TV star” is about the only successful line in his resume); he’s about to become one of the most powerful people in the country and the world. Treating him like a Kardashian seriously downplays the immense power he holds over millions of marginalized people all over the globe.
Put another way: We shouldn’t really care if he’s maybe a good grandpa; we should care about the families his policies will rip apart. We shouldn’t care if his wife thinks he’s great; we should care about the women whose reproductive rights may be stripped from them under his watch, and the normalization of sexual assault that he’s already engendered.
The consequences are simply too dire for People and Us Weekly and their ilk to glossify and glorify Donald Trump, even if it is their business to worship at the altar of celebrity, including presidents and presidential candidates. The nation faces a reality that while certainly not entirely new (racism, misogyny, and xenophobia have dominated colonial American society from the start), is in fact much grimmer than before November 8. It’s a reality that could have dire consequences for millions of the very Americans who eagerly await their weekly tabloid.
Any contribution to the idea that Trump is “business as usual” — or worse, palatable — is unethical and beneath the standards of what media should hold themselves to.
Sexist, racist authoritarians aren’t just like us. And we must never forget that.