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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR.: Trump’s trial proves a too-tempting distraction for media

Often when I speak to a group, I get an earful about how the media are broken.

The reasons tend to focus on perceived political bias. Some people contend the news business leans liberal, while others are just as convinced the media bend over backward to coddle conservatives.

What else is new? In the 2016 race for the White House, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump both claimed they were treated unfairly by the media.

In fact, there is even a debate right now between a former adviser to President Barack Obama who thinks U.S. newspapers should help re-elect President Joe Biden and the leader of one top newspaper who insists it is not the job of journalists to get anyone elected.

I keep waiting for someone in the crowd to say what I’ve been feeling over the past few years: That the real problem with news organizations isn’t which direction they lean, but what they obsess over. We’re spending too much time covering the wrong things and not enough covering more important matters.

After 35 years in journalism, I still love my gig. Even so, there are times when being in this line of work makes me feel like I need a shower. Quite often, the embarrassment stems from one branch of the family tree: cable television news.

Every day, I consume — from a variety of sources — an unhealthy amount of news and media. But in the past few weeks, the focus on one subject in particular feels almost poisonous.

For this, I blame the way media organizations — especially cable television news networks — have chosen to cover the so-called hush money trial involving an alleged sexual encounter between adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Trump.

At the center of the case brought by New York prosecutors is a $130,000 check that Trump gave his “fixer,” Michael Cohen, as reimbursement for a payment the lawyer gave to Daniels.

At issue is the motivation for that payment and how it was recorded. Prosecutors claim Trump wanted to keep the tryst secret so as not to damage his 2016 presidential campaign, and thus it should have been recorded as a campaign expense. Trump’s lawyers claim the real reason the former president wanted to keep the encounter secret was to spare his wife and children embarrassment.

Even if Trump is found guilty of everything the New York prosecutors claim, faulty bookkeeping feels like a minor infraction compared with some of the other crimes Trump is charged with in other indictments. They include conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding (the certification of the 2020 election) and the mishandling of classified government documents.

For several months, many legal observers have argued the New York case is much weaker, and of less significance, than the federal cases brought by special counsel Jack Smith.

Still, with this trial the only game in town, you can see the dilemma of 24-hour news networks. Cable outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, NewsNation and Fox News want to keep viewers tuned in, hanging on every word.

Lucky for the networks, there are two other aspects to the “hush money trial.” And while I would argue this subject matter is the least important part of this story, it is also catnip to many people, including many of those in the television news business: sex and money.

And so, for the past week or two, that’s why we’re being bombarded with wall-to-wall coverage of the trial, including the most salacious details of the alleged sexual encounter between Trump and Daniels. The coverage went into overdrive when the adult film actress took the stand last week, even though many legal observers insisted her testimony added little to the case.

Look, we’ve been here before. Too many times to count. The former president has the uncanny ability to knock the media off their game, divert their attention and dictate their agenda — all in ways that damage their credibility. Now he’s doing it again, albeit indirectly through a court proceeding.

With so much going on in the world — from universities removing encampments set up by protesters to Israel’s threat to go into Rafah to destroy Hamas to surging voter interest in third-party presidential candidates — cable television networks should spend more time on more important issues.

But that isn’t exactly breaking news. Is it?

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.