James Poniewozik, television critic for The New York Times since 2015, describes his job as “kind of like a radiation cleanup guy at Chernobyl.”
“As somebody who follows TV and the media, I kind of have to put on the radiation suit and get to the source of the meltdown and absorb all of the stuff that it might be strictly healthier for people to limit their exposure to,” he says.
That was particularly true, he says, while he was writing his new book, “Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America.” For his analysis of the connections between the evolution of American television and the cultural and political ascendancy of Trump, Poniewozik pored over 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” and dug through internet archives for Trump’s myriad TV interviews and other appearances.
So, is he OK?
“We will have to see when the tests come back,” he laughs.
For Poniewozik, 51, the project was an extension of work he’d already been doing, at the Times and previously at Time magazine and Salon. Though much of his work involves parsing the merits of individual TV shows, the part of his job he finds most rewarding is explaining “why this stuff matters — why people care about it, how it overlaps with other stuff in people’s lives that they care about,” he says. “Here was sort of a rare opportunity to apply TV criticism directly to the real world.”
He says he was frustrated by news coverage of Trump’s candidacy and election that described him as a “real estate mogul” or a “longtime businessman.”
“He was treated as somebody to whom being a TV star was an interesting sidelight, ancillary to being a businessman or being a politician,” Poniewozik says. “I think that’s totally backwards. It’s the main thing about him.”
The book meticulously documents the state of the television landscape in the ’80s and ’90s alongside Trump’s stardom in the New York City real estate scene, which eventually transformed him into a universally recognized symbol of capitalistic success, even when his bank sheets said otherwise. Poniewozik also draws parallels between Trump and the rise of the antihero drama on cable, the explosion of reality competition series at the turn of the century and the omnipresence of news channels vying for audiences’ attention.
From journalists like Tom Brokaw to the rotating hosts of “Fox & Friends,” the book argues, Trump took advantage of other people and companies’ willingness to look past the phony aspects of his personal brand. He wasn’t really a billionaire, but he played one effectively enough to remain one in the public imagination, the book posits.
Poniewozik doesn’t think individual people can necessarily be blamed for the results of perpetuating illusions of Trump’s grandeur, though.
“Looking back in retrospect, it’s not like I expect the Page Six columnist 40 years ago to have thought, ‘My God, what am I doing if I describe this kind of vain young businessman who’s talking to me on the phone as a billionaire — am I enabling a political demagogue?’ ” he says.
Readers who feel anxious about the possibility of another Trump-like figure bending the media ecosystem to his will won’t feel entirely reassured by Poniewozik’s book — and that was intentional, he says. In preparing to write, he read some similar nonfiction books and strived to avoid the trap of what he calls a “bulls--- optimistic solution ending.”
“If you want a better politics, you have to accept that we live in a mediated society where people are moved by powerful stories and narratives,” he says. “The only answer is you have to be conscious of that and try to tell a better story.”
Mark Lieberman is an editor for The Washington Post Express where he edits news about Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.