Master of Distraction


In a rare moment of candor in an otherwise typically long and rambling interview then presidential candidate Donald Trump did with Bob Woodward and Robert Costa for The Washington Post in April 2016 he made the following admission:

Donald Trump: I bring rage out…I always have…I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do. I also bring great unity out, ultimately. I’ve had many occasions like this, where people have hated me more than any human being they’ve ever met. And after it’s all over, they end up being my friends.

Woodward has been reminding people of this line recently to sound the alarm that we are “being had” – that Trump is creating fresh provocations for the media to be outraged by almost every day so that we are all just caught up in a rage and can’t separate the truly important transgressions from ones that are a distraction.  Woodward goes on to say “he’s doing things to distract us from all the big policy decisions he’s gambling on.” It seems like two years into the Trump presidency people are finally starting to figure out his strategy but it was all laid bare in the interview quoted above from the campaign trail.  Trump seems to thrive on bringing rage out in people and furthermore thinks that eventually those very same people will come around and become his friends. The great comedian and media critic Jon Stewart recently echoed what Woodward said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour saying that Trump baits journalists and  “appeals to their own narcissism and ego” and is able to distract attention away from his policies and “just focus on the fight”.  Stewart thinks we should focus less “on his insults and more on the people being hurt”. On a recent episode of his podcast the journalist Ezra Klein recently addressed Trump’s “ability to jam outrage into the system constantly…so that people don’t have time to digest whatevers just happened or whatever just came out”.  He goes on to say that Trump is a “genius at changing the subject by recognising that he can just change the subject to other things people are upset about” and that previous presidents would manage a scandal by changing the topic to something “boring” but “the thing that Donald Trump understands is that the only way to distract from scandal is with scandal and he’s okay with there being negative attention on him, he just wants to control what the negative attention is about.”  Klein breaks it down to a scientific level saying “I think that he’s understood that it’s like if something is a -5 charge you can only replace it with something that’s between -4 and -6, you can’t replace it with a +1 and that’s a good insight into how the media works.” Klein recently talked to Whitney Phillips who studied online trolling and talked about how online trolls crave attention, but that journalists can’t help but report on it because it’s so outrageous. She compared trolling strategy to Trump’s war with the media as a “feedback loop predicated on sensationalism.”

This strategy of distraction means that the media rightfully gets whipped into a flurry of outrage over Trump’s latest scandal and therefore bigger policy issues or fundamental problems with his presidency are not making waves in the same way. A case in point is that The New York Times published a blockbuster 13,000 word story of Trump’s history of dodging taxes on Wednesday, October 3rd and went so far as to say that Trump had engaged in “outright fraud”.  The story was overshadowed by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings at the moment so the Times even re-published the story in its entirety on Sunday, October 7th.  Though the story is damning and hopefully more will come of it, the actual impact has been rather muted. Trump himself dismissed the piece as “very old, boring and often told hit piece”.  After the initial publication of the story Trump tweeted that the two women that cornered Jeff Flake in an elevator in the midst of the Kavanaugh hearings were actors paid for by George Soros – possibly as a means to distract from the tax story.  ProPublica and WNYC have been doing some fine reporting on Trump as well and published a story implicating Trump and his family in deceptive practices involving their real estate business.  The impact of that story was similarly muted. Now that Democrats control the House there is a possibility that these issues will be properly investigated and Robert Mueller’s team could be investigating these items already.  Donald Trump is certainly no typical president and he is doing incredible damage to the country and the institution but it would be wise to not fall prey to the Trump-created distractions.

Changing the Model

As audio platforms like podcasts become mainstream, best-selling authors are moving into it and other new spaces to reach a wider audience, but the impact they’re having in relation to legacy book publishing and sales is yet to be seen.

Many popular authors have recently made the jump from traditional formats such as newspaper/magazine columns and books to new models like podcasts and audio originals on  A high profile case of this is Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, The Tipping Point, Blink) who has a popular podcast, Revisionist History.  Gladwell has sold millions of books but said that he decided to venture into podcasts to more easily reach his audience. Speaking with the New Yorker editor David Remnick, Gladwell sees podcasts as a means to get to a younger audience but also to keep his current readers engaged in between books in an environment where their attention is in high demand.  In an interview with Adweek Gladwell sums it up by saying, “if you’re going to be relevant…you have to try to reach people in more than one way because these worlds are getting quite fragmented.”

The best-selling author Michael Lewis (The Big Short, Moneyball, Flash Boys) had a column for Vanity Fair but he recently made the switch to audio originals for Audible.  Similar to Gladwell, Lewis is doing this as a means to expand his audience.  No doubt Lewis will find new “readers” through Audible but I wonder how many of his existing fans will follow him to that space.  Audible is mainly a subscription service and for £7.99 a month you can download one audiobook or Audible original a month. You can also get audio books without a subscription and you can buy Michael Lewis’s latest audio original, The Coming Storm for £5.49.  So for roughly the equivalent of a quarter-year’s-long subscription to Vanity Fair (annual price is currently £24) you could buy a single story that otherwise would have been a magazine column.  

Another author who has done this in one way or another is Robert Caro, famous for his landmark biographies of Robert Moses (The Power Broker) and his ongoing series on US President Johnson (The Years of Lyndon Johnson).  Caro is an old-school writer in almost every sense of the definition (Caro is famous for handwriting his drafts), but even he has made an Audible original with his latest work, a short memoir-esque piece only available on that platform.  Caro has long talked about writing a memoir once he’s finished with the LBJ project, but considering he is 82 years old some of his fans understandably fear that he will never get to it.  The Audible original could be a means to start getting that information out there in a quicker-to-market format than the usual process to get a book published. In an interview Caro said that he did it as a way to get some of his speeches saved for posterity.  

Some popular podcasters are going in the other direction though.  The comedian Marc Maron, who was an early pioneer of the podcast format published a collection of excerpts of the conversations he’s had on his popular podcast, WTF as a book.  Switching to this new model could prove lucrative and Amazon with its deep pockets is trying to court popular authors and likely looking to become the Netflix of audiobooks and colonise that space. The more popular the author, the likelier it is that some of their fans will follow them to the new platform but it remains to be seen how successful it will be for up and coming authors.  The filmmakers behind Crazy Rich Asians were pursued by Netflix and turned down their lucrative offers because they felt the movie being a success in the old-fashioned model was more important.  In an interview on Vulture, the film’s director Jon Chu said, “If it came down to money, what are we actually trying to do here?…Taking it to the theater, it’s a symbol that a Hollywood studio system thinks it has value…It put us emotionally all in and upped the stakes…Without that, we wouldn’t be doing this marketing push. It would just be on the front page of Netflix or wherever it could end up.”

There is certainly a large market for these new models (the comedian Joe Rogan recently said he gets 30 million downloads of his show a month) but it’s not being discussed in the same way, and this accounts for the decision to release Crazy Rich Asians theatrically.  Gladwell’s books are discussed widely and a few of the main concepts that he’s struck upon (“The 10,000 hour rule”, David & Goliath) seem to have broken into the mainstream.  Gladwell has some thought-provoking concepts in his podcasts as well but it is difficult to find the audience that discusses those ideas and critiques them in an engaging way.  For the most part podcasts aren’t reviewed the same way that books are, and this could be a sign of the struggles of old media trying to keep up with new media. In the interview with Remnick, Gladwell actually points to this as part of the appeal of podcasts, saying that there is no “critical infrastructure” that exists to tell people which podcasts to listen to, similar to what happens in books.  

The power of the book was expressed recently with the news that the legendary journalist Bob Woodward was coming out with a book about the Trump presidency.  Until recently the book was kept under wraps and considering how much is written about the administration and the constant daily turmoil, the fact that Woodward was able to do this on the sly was news on its own.  Woodward, famous for his reporting on the events that led to Richard Nixon’s impeachment, represents a dying breed of journalists. Even though he’s a working reporter who is occasionally on TV and has columns published, just the announcement of the book coming out became news in and of itself which could be a sign of the power of the old paradigm of book publishing.  Even authors who have embraced the new models aren’t giving up on books with Michael Lewis releasing a new book this fall and Malcolm Gladwell working on one as well.