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Hijacking the media -- Trump shows how easy it is

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
January 3, 2013 -- Updated 1634 GMT (0034 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Donald Trump said the GOP can go nuclear in budget showdown
  • Kurtz: It's remarkable that Trump draw attention no what what he says
  • He says it's so easy to hijack the media in the age of Twitter
  • Kurtz: Journalists like sexy stories but shouldn't lose focus of what's important

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- After a year of national gridlock that ended on the precipice of a cliff, Donald Trump went nuclear.

The man who called Barack Obama's re-election a travesty said Republicans could gain control of the budget showdown because they "are sitting there with a nuclear weapon": the specter of voting against a rise in the debt ceiling in the coming weeks. In other words, the GOP could get its way by again threatening to push the country into default.

The remarkable thing here is not Trump's apocalyptic advice but that the man who still doesn't concede that the president was born in Hawaii draws attention no matter what he says. The colorful businessman has a knack for hijacking the media -- and he's hardly alone.

Watch: Hey Fox, Hillary Clinton was sick after all

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

In fact, one of the most striking developments in recent years is how easy it is to carry out the hijacking. You don't need a weapon, nuclear or otherwise. You don't have to be a famous zillionaire to pull it off. In the Twitter age, almost anyone can capture the spotlight for 15 seconds.

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We're so easy. If it's new, novel or naughty, we are there.

A critical mass of tweeters hijacked the presidential debates by turning Big Bird and "binders full of women" into trending topics. What, you thought what was most important was what the candidates said during those 90-minute face-offs? Nope, it's just as much about winning the post-game chatter. A single "oops" by Rick Perry enables the press to wipe out everything else that was said.

Watch: Are critics being too harsh on Chelsea Clinton?

Clint Eastwood, telling Obama (in the guise of an empty chair) to perform an anatomically impossible act? That hijacked Mitt Romney's convention.

Eric Fehrnstrom inadvertently hijacked his boss' campaign when he compared Romney's election strategy to an Etch A Sketch. Nothing like a kid's toy to seize the attention of grown-up journalists.

Any invocation of a celebrity has great hijacking potential, even if the story is a sprinkling of fairy dust.

The political press recently surrendered to the notion that Ben Affleck might run for John Kerry's Senate seat in Massachusetts. This was based on nothing more than local chatter, amplified by Politico. Affleck shrewdly kept the door ajar -- such speculation helps in the gravitas department --but on Christmas Eve, he gave the press a lump of coal by admitting he wasn't running.

Watch: Were the media swept away by fiscal cliff madness?

Next the media got excited by the idea that Ted Kennedy Jr. would run for office -- until he quickly popped that trial balloon.

Sometimes the hijacker wants no part of the limelight but is swept along for the ride.

Paula Broadwell was embedded in the nation's consciousness for weeks after her affair with David Petraeus prompted his resignation as CIA director. And her romantic rival, Jill Kelley, became a captive as well.

Racial tension can grab the media's attention like few other issues.

There are more than 15,000 murders annually in the United States, but only a few move beyond local headlines. The killing of Trayvon Martin, initially overlooked even in Florida, became a national sensation once activists persuaded the media that race played a role in the teenager's shooting (a perception deepened by NBC's misleading editing of George Zimmerman's 911 call). Week after week of routine murders in cities such as Chicago barely register on the radar.

WATCH: Forget the Fiscal Cliff—Kim Kardashian Is Pregnant!

Most journalists gravitate toward sensational and sexy stories (and I haven't been immune to the temptation) because we want the clicks and the ratings. And perhaps to alleviate our own boredom with the daily grunt work of reporting. The on-and-off negotiations over the fiscal cliff have been tedious and incremental. Along comes Trump and boom, you've got an easy headline.

The problem with all this media hijacking goes beyond the strange twists and turns along the way. It's that we cede control of what's important.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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