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January 28, 2021

Pitts column: It’s time to break our addiction to Trump

Dear Colleagues: Well, that was … normal.

President-elect Biden slips while playing with his dog on Saturday and has to go to the hospital, where he is diagnosed with hairline fractures in the bones of his foot, necessitating a few weeks in a walking boot. The information is released in a businesslike and apparently transparent manner. No doctor even bothers to report that Biden was “a phenomenal patient.”

Indeed, so pervasive is the sense of adult competence that it even seems to infect Donald Trump. “Get well soon!” he tweets. And that’s all he says. He doesn’t even call Biden “Sleepy Joe” or tie the injury to some bizarre conspiracy theory.

Like a patch of blue in a thunderstorm sky, normalcy reappears. Yet even as one basks in the feeble sunshine of it, one wonders how long that patch of blue can last. The answer, of course, is not knowable. What is knowable, though, is that however durable it ultimately proves will depend in large part on those of us who report and opine upon the news for a living. Put simply: It is time for us to break our addiction to Trump.

As has often been noted, his 2016 rise to power was fueled in large part by what amounted to some $5 billion in free advertising — i.e., interviews, coverage of his rallies, stories about his tweets — from news media. Mind you, every presidential candidate benefits from this; Hillary Clinton enjoyed $3.24 billion in free coverage herself. But here is the distinction: Trump received wildly disparate media attention long before he proved himself a serious force in that campaign. Indeed, the disparity was likely crucial in making him competitive in the first place.

He drew media attention not because anyone thought he could win but because, against the likes of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, he was entertainment, comic relief. Reporters chased after him the way a puppy chases after a ball —and for the same reason; it was fun. As the saying goes, Trump gave good quote, was only too happy to spout the outrageous, the insulting, the ignorant and the offensive. Instead of treating his candidacy as we once did Dave Barry’s — i.e., as a stunt — we treated it as if it was legitimate and, in the process, made it so. By the time anyone thought to subject him to the kind of scrutiny a “real” presidential candidate faces, it was too late.

Donald Trump is president in large part because we did not ignore him when we could have and should have, an option we lost on Election Day. What a president does and says — no matter how stupid — is the very definition of news.

What an ex-president does and says, however, is a different matter entirely. And therein lies an opportunity.

Not that Trump will make it easy. Unlike his modern predecessors, he will not go quietly into retirement. To the contrary, it’s safe to assume that, from Biden’s first day as president, Trump will seek to function as a Greek chorus of condemnation and criticism. Expect him to whip out everything this side of fireworks and air horns as he tries to maintain his place at center stage under the world spotlight.

Do not allow him to do it. The man is an attention junkie, but as our coverage of the 2016 campaign proved, we are all too happy to be his enablers.

It is time to break this co-dependency. Yes, cover him when something truly newsworthy happens, but for the love of Cronkite, let’s lose the habit of dutifully recording his every hiccup and twitch. The nation will be better for it. Journalism will, too.

After Jan. 20, we will regain the freedom we lost in 2016. After Jan. 20, we can choose to ignore Donald Trump.

Let’s.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.)

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