'Morning Donald' Tames TV Like Madoff Tamed SEC: Read My Lips

TV news, meet regulatory capture.

"Use the softest lens you've got."

Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Three TV stars shared a chuckle the other day, recalling the time they played word association and one answered "evil" for Hillary Clinton.

"The thing is, you sat there and you waited 'til you thought about it!" one talent gushed to another. "It's funny. And everybody's talking about it."

The gusher in that exchange was Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe." He was gushing not to his regular Ed McMahon, Mika Brzezinski, but to Donald Trump, who has become something of a third wheel on the show when he's not busy tormenting the Republican establishment or corrupting high school sports.

Captured on a hot mic during a commercial break, the friendly banter among Scarborough, Brzezinski and Trump refueled the griping and whining about "Morning Joe" being the house organ of the Trump insurgency. In fairness, there's no smoking gun in the six minutes of small talk -- no tipoff of forthcoming questions, no request to be considered for vice president. But neither is there an indication of anything resembling a traditional arm's-length relationship between interrogator and candidate.

Debating whether Scarborough and Brzezinski -- who, surprise, landed the first interview with Trump's wife, Melania -- are in the bag for Trump misses the larger point: Presidential candidates and television news have achieved a level of coziness and deference not seen since federal regulators paid their friendly visit to Bernie Madoff.

NBC enjoyed a ratings boost when it got Clinton to flip pancakes and name her favorite drink -- vodka martini! -- during a "Today"-staged town hall in New Hampshire. Fox News fans thought the network went too easy on Clinton in 2014. A 2013 softball interview of Barack Obama on "60 Minutes" would have left Mike Wallace appalled.

With presidential debates, forums and town halls now viewed as must-see TV -- doesn't anybody get Netflix anymore? -- networks compete to land big-name candidates and then trumpet their success when they do so. MSNBC and CNN went head-to-head in a town-hall ratings war earlier this month that had all the competitive juice of "The Voice" versus "X Factor." As one headline put it, "Donald Trump on CNN outdraws Hillary Clinton on MSNBC."

As with so much about campaign 2016, Trump is the chief disrupter. Though he complains incessantly about media coverage, even joking about wanting to kill reporters, he has television news eating out of his gold-leafed palm. Who needs billions of dollars when you have a complimentary buffet of free media?

In "Crippled America," Trump's buzzkill of a campaign manifesto, he is refreshingly -- or is it frighteningly? -- blunt about his media strategy:

"I use the media the way the media uses me -- to attract attention. Once I have that attention, it's up to me to use it to my advantage. I learned a long time ago that if you're not afraid to be outspoken, the media will write about you or beg you to come on their shows. … So sometimes I make outrageous comments and give them what they want -- viewers and readers -- in order to make a point. … I have a mutually profitable two-way relationship with the media -- we give each other what we need."

Whether giving free Zamboni rides, hosting reporters aboard his 757 or offering debate-night counterprogramming, Trump makes sure that television needs him more than he needs it -- a reversal of the natural order. As a businessman, Trump probably knows the term for this: regulatory capture.

The phrase usually refers to a private institution, like a bank, coopting or seducing its regulator. New York Fed examiners who spend their days in the comfortable cocoon of Wall Street firms might start seeing the world through the eyes of a banker; a commission that exists to regulate taxis might join them in looking askance at the emergence of Uber.

In those cases, the ultimate corruption occurs when the regulator takes a high-paying job with the industry he or she once regulated. Good thing there's no such thing as a revolving door between politics and the talent that covers it.

*****

A political writer's map to the presidential nomination:

  1. Finish first or second in the Hawkeye State.
  2. Exceed expectations in the Granite State.
  3. Take off the gloves in the Palmetto State while laying groundwork in the Silver State.
  4. Quietly raise money in the Empire State.
  5. If you live in or have family in the Tar Heel State, the Volunteer State or the Beaver State, run a few ads to avoid an embarrassing showing.
  6. If not, get an early start in the Buckeye State, since, as the saying goes, as Buckeye goes, so go Keystone and Hoosier.
  7. Check the establishment lane. If it looks clear, take it all the way to the Sunshine State. If there's traffic, try to make it at least to the Peach State. If a jackknifed tractor trailer has the whole thing shut down, bail and try to make it to the Bluegrass State by nightfall.
  8. If the price tag of your proposals draws criticism, remind everybody that you cut your teeth in the Belt Tightening State. That one's made up, but so is much of what Ben Carson says.
  9. Run the table in the Show-Me State, the North Star State and the Cornhusker State. The nomination is in the bag.
  10. As president, vacation in the Cowboy State. It's never too early to think re-election.

(Read My Lips is a column dedicated to the proposition that men and women in the corridors of power will say or do things for which they might be sorry.)

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