Oh, this is rich.
And so is Donald Trump, the orange-coiffed multimillionaire, reality-show host of NBC's Celebrity Apprentice, and seeming - or is it faux? - presidential candidate.
Trump's political romp has made for great TV. He has dissed China (though his own menswear line is made there), advocated takeover of Iraqi oil fields (raising the hair of fellow Republicans), and questioned President Obama's citizenship (occasioning the unprecedented presentation of the presidential birth certificate).
Faux pas after faux pas, any one enough to kill most presidential bids. But not this one. Because it isn't one. Or Trump hasn't said it is yet.
Lawrence O'Donnell, host of The Last Word on MSNBC, the cabler owned and operated by NBC, declared Wednesday that "NBC has created a monster, and it is called Donald Trump."
Why? Because Trump says he won't confirm whether he's running until the May 22 finale of Celebrity Apprentice.
"I have a very, very successful show on television," he said Wednesday, "the No. 1 show on NBC." (True: As of the Nielsen numbers released Tuesday, Celebrity Apprentice was NBC's most-watched show - but it was the 24th-most-watched show on TV, with an average viewership of 8.26 million.) "I cannot announce until that show is over."
Conflict, cried O'Donnell: "Trump is now hiding behind NBC . . . and NBC is allowing him to hide behind NBC." He said NBC must already know whether Apprentice has been renewed for next season, so "NBC has a conflict with Mr. Trump," allowing him to "spew hatred reeking with racist overtones." He challenged NBC (O'Donnell's boss!) to fire Trump or tell him to be quiet.
MSNBC, NBC, and Trump spokespeople declined to comment for this article.
Al Felzenberg, a presidential scholar who teaches at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, says O'Donnell has a point: "The corporate side of NBC is now complicit in one of the biggest publicity stunts in history, and the very fact Trump is both host of Celebrity Apprentice and a vigorous if undeclared candidate, all to pump up ratings - it very much damages the political discourse."
Barbie Zelizer, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn, seconds that: "What's at stake is the very integrity of the distinction between public and private media endeavors. It's such a transparent stunt, with the complicity and silence of NBC behind the scenes. It's refreshing to see O'Donnell tell it like it is."
Today, former ethical boundaries are all but erased. "It shows us how blended the public and private spheres have become across the board, and how much wealth cuts across domains of public influence without our knowledge," Zelizer says. "Trump the financier, entertainer, politician gets his voice heard. NBC and everyone else gives him free publicity."
Felzenberg hastens to point out that "nobody's totally clean in this thing. This helps O'Donnell's ratings, too. And I wonder whether, had someone on the left been doing all this, O'Donnell would have been so quick to question it."
Zelizer disagrees: "This goes beyond questions of right, center, or left. The question of integrity transcends party."
She says Trump is perfect for TV because "he's wealthy, he's influential, and he doesn't know when to shut his mouth." Trump is a creation - and is taking gleeful advantage - of this moment's media world, in which all claims, no matter how nuts, exist forever and can never be put to rest.
John F. Harris, editor-in-chief of the website Politico, says that although U.S. politics has always been polarized, "whole industries have grown up now, with money and power incentives to traffic in this stuff, and they bring stuff that was once marginal and disreputable into the mainstream and keep it there."
That's why the "birther" claims, questioning Obama's citizenship, persist. On Birth Certificate Wednesday, Obama said, "I know that there's going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest."
Muck, innuendo, and smear are now immortal, and it's all but impossible to be through with anything, even with irrefutable documentary evidence. In the 24/7 media age, with cable news, the Web, and self-publishers busily echoing and relaying hurtful rumor, that's how it works.
Minutes after Obama spoke, Trump took up where he never left off: "Today, I'm really proud of myself" for hammering at the birth issue - then seamlessly transitioned to his next point of attack: "I heard at Columbia he wasn't a very good student . . ."