The Donald Trump Tonight Show appearance, and its subsequent backlash, indicates a systemic failure we need to address now.
This is not a defence of Jimmy Fallon, let me make that abundantly clear at the jump. In general, and this is the impression I’ve gotten from his work on The Tonight Show, he’s a super-bland robot that will blindly follow the orders of whoever is in charge of him, and whose seeming sole purpose in life is to fawn uncritically over any famous person he’s in the general vicinity of, like an Instagram comment section made sentient. He absolutely should have bucked his usual programming and taken this opportunity to actually try and take Donald Trump to task for, well, basically Trump’s whole entire existence. Maybe at least have fact-checked him when he claimed to not know or have an opinion on Vladimir Putin despite having spent much of the Matt Lauer-led debate (that he repeatedly stopped to slobber all over) last week saying otherwise.
But, of course, as well know, Fallon did none of those things. He threw Trump softballs, sat by refusing to challenge anything Trump said, set up easy jokes to make Trump look like such a quick-witted and relatable guy, chased the sweet sweet viral/meme money that keeps him on the air, and generally acted like Kent Brockman welcoming our new insect overlords. A large part of me hopes there’s an edit featuring cameras purely focussed on The Roots, staring dagger eyes into their sycophantic boss and weighing up whether a jury in their right mind would convict them for taking turns beating Trump to death with ?uestlove’s drumsticks. The whole thing has been roundly and rightly criticised by most everybody under the sun, and whatever (ultimately modest) ratings bump Fallon gets from this will (hopefully) not be able to rescue his reputation for at least the near-future, especially if Trump loses come November.
Yet I awoke to all of this yesterday morning, scrolling through my feed, seeing people alternate between shitposting and genuine shock and anger that I rarely see in my feed anymore, and my main response was simply, “Wait, why are we getting so furious about the completely expected happening?” I don’t mean this in a smug, above-it-all way, you understand. I was genuinely confused as to why everybody was so furious that Jimmy Fallon – a man who would almost definitely fawn over George Zimmerman if you put the two in a room together, turned on some cameras, and held his paycheque over his head the entire time – didn’t use his late night talk-show – a television format that is fundamentally designed to avoid seriously discussing politics in any meaningful way due to its nature as comfort food before bed – on NBC – the network that made Donald Trump in the 2000s thanks to The Apprentice, and has been riding him for morally-compromised ratings gold ever since – to stage an impromptu Frost/Nixon. Why are we so angrily surprised at this completely expected and heavily signposted turn of events?
However, as the day dragged on and everybody took turns offering up the same two viewpoints, the slow realisation dawned on me as to why Jimmy fucking Fallon of all people appeared to be the last straw for so many people. The problem isn’t Fallon. The problem has been the media itself.
“Callum, that is not at all the kind of shocking revelation that you’re trying to make it look like.” Yeah, I know, and I’m not trying to make it look shocking. That doesn’t, however, make it any less true. Fallon’s only real crimes, that aren’t related to his general work hosting The Tonight Show, is him doing The Jimmy Fallon Thing to a racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, etc. etc. megalomaniac who is worryingly close to taking a seat in The White House. Arguably, Fallon didn’t really do anything actively wrong. What he did do, though, and this is something he does deserve to be dragged through the mud for, is perfectly embody the media’s coverage of this whole godforsaken train-wreck of an election year.
(For the record, most of what I’m about to say is going to be a lesser version of these two segments from this week’s Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. I recommend watching those after you’ve finished reading this. Or before you finish reading this, either works.)
The modern news media is set up to provide election coverage where the two candidates are both legitimately qualified, professional, intelligent, mannered, and overall fit to run one of the world’s most powerful countries when the madness is all over, but have different ideologies. Consequently, it’s easier to sell to the general public the idea (though more often “facade”) of fair and balanced journalism because, usually, both candidates are at least close to being equally flawed with one another. What they are not equipped to deal with, however, is a race between a flawed but inarguably still qualified and competent candidate, and a dry-heaving genetically-modified Terry’s Chocolate Orange with the worldview of a D. W. Griffith movie and the political savvy of a whiney 4 year-old losing at a game of Risk.
Everybody knows that Hillary Clinton is far more qualified to be President than Donald Trump – almost like she has manipulated every facet of her life to ensure that her road would led to The White House at some point, or something – but the media can’t say as such because, despite them having near-literal mountains of evidence that can factually prove otherwise, doing so would be misconstrued as being “an opinion” and therefore “bias.” So what you get is the kind of false equivalency that has been all over the media for the past several months. Trump continues to propagate Birther conspiracy theories, demands foreign countries commit espionage on the nation he’s running to be the leader of, and is openly stirring up racist and xenophobic mobs… but Hillary Clinton once used a private email server, so both of these candidates are equally horrible and qualified people – this is not even mentioning the fact that Clinton has many completely justifiable things to take her to task for, yet everybody remains fixated on this proven non-story for some inexplicable reason.
It’s the same problem that Britain suffered through with Brexit earlier in the year. Everybody knew that Brexit was a stupid fucking idea, and an army of experts queued up to take turns spelling out with facts exactly why it was a stupid fucking idea, but no outlet could openly say so because to do so would be “having an opinion” and “bias” – never mind the blatant, hateful Conservative right-wing genuine bias propagated in certain newspapers on a daily basis, especially around the time of the referendum, but that’s getting off-track. So they instead had to provide an uncritical, unchallenged platform for the blatant xenophobia, baseless promises, and straight up lying of a campaign that (as the aftermath has proven) had no actual substantive plan, unlike their opponents, out of this misguided idea of “balance.” If you wanted facts, follow-up questions, or anything approaching “journalism,” you were expected to go do that yourself, because journalists doing their goddamn jobs now is apparently an alien concept.
Furthermore, especially in America, The News is a ratings war like every other kind of television. If your content isn’t exciting, immediate, dramatic, then people will simply flick over to the news outlet that will provide them with such. This is where that false equivalency takes insidious root. A landslide victory, with no competition from the opponent in both general support and actual political skill and savvy, is boring to the average person. Cue desperate attempts to manufacture tension by grading on a curve: Trump acted slightly less of a pompous blowhard in one interview? He’s now more Presidential! Hillary openly insulted all Trump supporters with a generalisation? She’s now a stuck-up bitch! Trump let Fallon tussle his wig? He’s so game for anything and relatable and JUST LIKE YOU! And this feeds over into the polls, too. If you are ploughed, for weeks on end, with statistics and statements claiming that the race is so close, neck-and-neck, little separating the two candidates, then you’re going to believe it and, worse, the polls will start to reflect that rhetoric.
Plus, there’s the small matter of Television essentially being responsible for Trump’s continued relevance, and I don’t just mean with how it fixated on his campaign during the Primaries over most all others in the hopes of a carnival sideshow. Trump hasn’t been famous for being a businessman for nearly 2 decades. Trump is famous for being Trump, for the brand of Trump, the image of the man that NBC helped sculpt through 14 seasons of The Apprentice and its various spin-offs. Television brought Trump back to prominence, projected the image of a winner that could get shit done, that would tell it like it is at all times and be Must-Watch Television whenever he stepped on-screen. Television built up the character of Donald Trump and it has been riding him for all he’s worth ever since because he is Must-Watch Television, a larger-than-life character who dominates the conversation whenever he appears. Is it really that much of a surprise that he’s a WWE Hall of Famer who participated in a WrestleMania match?
I then realised that’s why everybody is so angry over the Jimmy Fallon interview. Donald Trump is a television character who may be voted into The White House in 2 months’ time – because apparently our world is trying to stage real-life versions of Black Mirror episodes – and Television is actively working to make that happen both because it has too much skin in the game and because it genuinely knows no other way to operate. And we know that this is wrong. We know that this needs to be halted, for somebody to do their actual job and hold Trump to account for his lies, misinformation, hate-speech, and general bullshit to his face. To start educating the American viewing public properly, with none of the false equivalency that they’ve been peddling so far, for real unbiased fact-based journalism to take hold for once.
And we are so desperate for this that we will place these hopes and expectations onto Jimmy Fallon, a man luxuriating in a television genre where the most journalism that is allowed to take place from its hosts is them asking a guest “so when’s the film coming out?” before throwing to commercial. And when Jimmy Fallon ends up giving exactly the same fawning, shallow, puff-piece “interview” that he gives to every last one of his other guests, we rake him over the coals for not suddenly being a reincarnated Walter Cronkite that’s been playing the long con, despite there being no indication that anything different than what did happen would have happened, because we are so desperate for somebody, literally anybody, to rise up and yell, “You know that this is terrifying bullshit, right?”
Again, this is not meant to be a defence of Jimmy Fallon – even with my pre-viewing desire to try cutting the guy the tiniest bit of slack, that whole segment was some appallingly hot flaming garbage, inarguably – just a reminder that Fallon is merely representative of a fundamentally flawed larger whole. When Clinton appears on Monday, he will almost definitely provide the exact same dreck that he served up with Trump, because that’s his (and late night talk-shows’) whole thing. The rest of the news media, and especially the Television that helped give birth to the logical endpoint of Capitalism and its possible terrifying ascendency to one of the most powerful offices in the world, has no such excuse. It’s time for everybody involved to do their fucking jobs, cos The Tonight Show sure as shit isn’t going to do it for them.
Callum Petch will be waiting with a gun and a pack of sandwiches. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!