The media’s ‘Main Character Syndrome’

A chronicle of Donald Trump's Crimes or Allegations

The media’s ‘Main Character Syndrome’

There’s one topic members of the media care about more in 2024 than Donald Trump — “democracy.” The word “democracy” was said 34 times on MSNBC on Monday alone. Another 19 times on CNN, according to the database TV Eyes. It can often be followed by words like “itself.” Because democracy itself, you see, is at stake in 2024.

At least that’s what the self-important, doom-scrolling, politics-brained Acela Media tells us — and most importantly, tells itself. The media has internalized these heightened implications — the threat inflation that comes from Trump’s third presidential run and the very real possibility of a second term. And they have convinced themselves it is their mission to quite literally save democracy (itself!).

Take the recent panic we saw on CNN, when independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appeared on Erin Burnett’s show Monday night. Burnett pressed him whether the “threat to democracy that Trump poses” is really equal to Biden’s “evil.” “I can make the argument that President Biden is the much worse threat to democracy,” Kennedy said, citing censorship efforts by the administration, as well as the denial of Secret Service protection to Kennedy himself. “He’s weaponizing the federal agencies.”

This momentary distraction from the consensus narrative could not stand on CNN. Immediately after the interview, the network brought on its chief “fact-checker,” Daniel Dale. Dale’s version of the fact-check was simply stating that there was “no evidence” President Biden was “personally” responsible for the Secret Service denial or the censorship, and then going on to explain why it was actually a good thing RFK was censored for posting “vaccine and other” misinformation.

No, the press cannot let the veil slip for even a moment about the task at hand, which is making the case to the American public that Donald Trump is a unique threat to America — while maintaining a posture of fact-based coverage and objectivity. They seem incapable of seeing their efforts are having precisely the opposite effect — eroding trust in the industry, while convincing no one other than true believers in the “Resistance.”

But this is what happens when our previously mostly anonymous national journalists are suffering from a collective “Main Character Syndrome,” a term that has gained in popularity in recent years thanks to the rise of social media, where truly anyone can become an influencer. The philosopher Derek Parfit described our era as at the “hinge of history” in 2011, and our narcissistic media elites have taken it to heart. They can’t just report the news anymore — no, they must correctly guide our path so the course of history unfolds precisely as it should.

We saw this over the weekend with an unremarkable comment from “Meet the Press” host Kristen Welker that was pilloried by the Very Online left. After describing Trump’s recent attacks on Judge Juan Merchan and his family in Trump’s New York hush money case, Welker said it was “yet another reminder that we covering this election against the backdrop of a deeply divided nation” — a simply true statement.

But this wasn’t sufficient for the main characters on X, the site formerly known as Twitter. MSNBC contributor Ruth Ben-Ghiat said it was “totally insufficient to the gravity and magnitude of the threat.” Former CNN journalist John Harwood wrote out how Welker should have described it, like calling Trump a “deranged criminal” instead. New Republic contributing editor Nina Burleigh said “NBC suits may think having a female brown anchor on TV cancels out what comes out of her mouth.”

Have these people lost their minds?

The context here is important. This follows Welker and NBC helping to push out the just-hired contributor Ronna McDaniel last week because of her supposed unacceptable insurrection-adjacency. That campaign was conducted on air by everyone from ousted “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd, who justified his actions by claiming it was about “basic truth,” to Rachel Maddow, who closed out the day-long televised therapy session on MSNBC by attacking the “bad actors trying to use the rights and privileges of the democracy to end democracy” (a double dose of democracy!).

Right — having the former head of the RNC get a paycheck to give her political opinions is contributing to the “end of democracy.” No one really believes this, outside of the newsrooms in New York and DC.

Maddow interviewed Shepard Fairey, of a group called “Artists for Democracy,” Monday night, who described how his goal as to “save democracy, to keep Trump from being reelected.” Apparently Main Character Syndrome exists in the art world too.

It’s not just NBC. On ABC in February, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) sparred with George Stephanopoulos over the host’s “ridiculous” questions rehashing the 2020 election, and stated he thinks there were “problems” with that election, including the social media censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story and states changing election laws during the Covid pandemic. The Washington Post’s “analysis” of that interview used this absurd headline: “J.D. Vance would have upended democracy over right-wing nonsense.”

On “Morning Joe” on Tuesday, cohost Mika Brzezinski solemnly read a large portion of a “letter from the editor” from the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper on “truth” and “duty” this election cycle.

“The media as we know it won’t exist if they don’t do it the right way,” said her guest, Donny Deutsch, claiming Trump will “call up various networks” and demand they fire certain hosts if he wins again. It was hard to tell, but I think the former ad exec actually believed this self-serious nonsense.

Brzezinski didn’t read all of it, but the newspaper’s letter contained this blunt and arrogantly definitive declaration: “Biden was never a threat to our democracy. Trump is.” I wonder what readers of this paper should expect from the political coverage in 2024? And is it any wonder local news outlets are disappearing with mission statements like this?

The ego of these thirsty “main characters” has been unleashed. They’re our heroes now. Because democracy is in danger — but thankfully we have the journalists to save us.

Steve Krakauer, a NewsNation contributor, is the author of “Uncovered: How the Media Got Cozy with Power, Abandoned Its Principles, and Lost the People” and editor and host of the Fourth Watch newsletter and podcast.