There are few presidents who have duped the American people as thoroughly as President Donald Trump. A son of a famous, powerful dynasty built on inherited wealth and dubious tax schemes managed to convince nearly half of American voters that he is a self-made billionaire businessman who is eager to look after the interests of everyday Americans. Befittingly, the media in the Age of Trump has provided a platform for a parade of similarly shameless grifters seeking to emulate the President’s political and financial success, feeding the worst tribalistic impulses of politically-engaged Americans.
No one better encapsulates the rise and fall of these charlatans than Donald Trump’s own spiritual doppelganger and former Resistance leader, Michael Avenatti. No one better demonstrates the danger in uncritically embracing the enemy of your enemy.
Attorney Michael Avenatti swanned onto seemingly every news network around March 2018, when he began spearheading adult film actress Stormy Daniels’s lawsuit seeking to invalidate a 2016 non-disclosure agreement regarding her affair with Donald Trump. He was telegenic, well-dressed, and had all the details of a salacious sex scandal surrounding the unpopular sitting president.
The thirsty media lapped him up. Like his adversary, Avenatti wanted to milk the attention just as much as they did: after hyping it to oblivion in his television appearances and on Twitter, he released the records showing the multiple large payments that the President insisted never existed. Over the next several months, the cable networks handed him hundreds of interviews, amounting to nearly $175 million in earned media time. His Twitter following ballooned and he began to flirt with a 2020 presidential run.
Outside of her 60 minutes interview, Stormy was conspicuously absent on cable news. Few people wondered why. Ironically enough, it was Fox News host Tucker Carlson who proved to be the most astute among the few outspoken Avenatti critics.
“You’re wearing $1,000 suit. Why is — why are you not paying her?” Carlson asked Avenatti after successfully luring him into an interview. “You’ve profited from Stormy Daniels. You’ve gotten tens of millions of dollars worth of free media on the basis of your relationship with her and she’s working in strip clubs. You’re exploiting her and you know that. Why aren’t you paying her some of what you’re making?”
Carlson’s motivations behind asking the question may have been partisan given his frequent full-throated defenses of the President, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. Avenatti has since been indicted for stealing from Daniels by pocketing money from her memoir to buy those made-to-measure Tom Ford suits and wide-striped Brioni ties.
It turns out that was just the tip of the iceberg of sleaziness. Outside of Daniels, other clients he has been accused of stealing from include a mentally ill paraplegic man on disability named Geoffrey Ernest Johnson, popular makeup artist and YouTube personality Michelle Phan, and Miami Heat basketball center Hassan Whiteside. He was arrested in New York on charges of trying to extort up to $25 million from Nike. The State Bar of California has wisely put him on involuntary inactive status, likely the first step in the process to disbar him, after he was indicted on 36 counts connected to his cheating and fraud by a federal jury.
Now that Avenatti has spectacularly crashed, right wing pundits have been quick to crow about the “mainstream media” should be ashamed of themselves for giving this cretin the attention he craved.
“What almost no one is doing is looking at how television was Avenatti’s enabler,” alleged Howard Kurtz, host of Fox News Channel’s “MediaBuzz”. “All the shows that constantly featured Avenatti — often covered by video of Stormy Daniels in tight-fitting dresses — made a judgment that he was a credible attorney.”
This is what happens when you suffer from Trump derangement syndrome, they cry.
“Michael Avenatti’s swift journey to Resistance Champion was abetted by the news media, eager to observe (and induce) the downfall of Donald Trump,” wrote Emily Jashinsky, culture editor at The Federalist.
The criticism isn’t unfounded, but anyone who genuinely believes the media is seeking to take down the President isn’t paying attention. They want him there. The media, by and large, profited immensely from Avenatti and Donald Trump. Cable news shows are breaking ratings records, books are cool again, and the popularity of opinion journalism has never been higher.
Not that this is a good thing for the rest of us. Not only does giving grifters a platform to extend their grift leave livelihoods in shambles, but it pollutes political discourse as a whole. Did hundreds of interviews really contribute to the debate? Did they offer any new facts the previous dozen interviews already covered? Do we really need to invite the Kellyanne’s, the Omarosa’s, the Wolff’s to every conversation?
There will be more Avenatti’s. We need to be mindful of how we elevate them. It is not wise for news networks to feed into the drama for an easy buck: the grifters will come after them, too, and the costly collateral damage to their credibility will be irreparable.
As former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once noted, “You can’t keep snakes in your backyard and expect them only to bite your neighbors. You know, eventually those snakes are going to turn on whoever has them in the backyard.”