Trumping the Media

(Photo: AP)

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the Spin Room after the December 15, 2015, CNN/Facebook debate in Las Vegas, Nevada.

On Tuesday, a federal judge released records showing that workers at Trump University had called the for-profit institution a “lie” and a “scheme.” That same day, Donald Trump lashed out at journalists during a press conference to defend his hard-to-track donations to veterans’ groups.

Both stories were newsworthy. One offered a live demonstration of how the presumptive GOP presidential nominee might handle a White House press briefing. The other shed light on Trump’s role in an institution that aggressively steered customers to the priciest courses, the new documents show, and that is being sued by students who claim they were defrauded.

But news media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson says media coverage of that day’s events, which in some cases played Trump’s attacks on reporters more prominently than the newly released university documents, demonstrates Trump’s master skills as a media manipulator.

The insult-riddled news conference to discuss veterans was a classic example of sleight of hand, says Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center: “It was a beautiful case of misdirection.” In The Washington Post, Trump’s press conference led the paper, while a report on the new Trump University documents was tucked at the bottom of page four. (The New York Times, by contrast, led with the university story, and gave the press conference story secondary front-page billing.)

Trump’s skill at deflecting attention from Tuesday’s unflattering legal disclosures exemplifies the complicated, influential, and not always laudatory role the news media have played in this campaign. Wall-to-wall TV coverage has earned Trump close to $2 billion worth of free media, and print news outlets have also disproportionately covered Trump.

The Huffington Post recently tallied the “staggering” numbers: In March, the network evening newscasts—ABC, CBS, and NBC—devoted more than five times more coverage to Trump (143 minutes) than to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined (26 minutes). Also in March, CNN mentioned Trump 25,000 times; Clinton and Sanders got 13,000 mentions.

All this has triggered considerable news industry hand-wringing, with much speculation as to whether the media bear responsibility for Trump’s success. Some reject that notion, arguing that Trump has created a groundbreaking spin machine that could harm as well as help him. Others point to a clear correlation between nonstop coverage of Trump and his steadily climbing polls throughout the primaries. Perhaps not surprisingly, Trump’s unsuccessful GOP rivals squarely blamed the media for his rise. As one Jeb Bush aide put it, “Trump blocked the sun for seven months.”

But the media face “a very complex and difficult situation,” says Jamieson, noting that Trump makes news in a different fashion from Clinton, and that not covering his campaign “would be negligent.” Among other problems, Trump is a media hound who routinely calls stations and makes himself available for interviews, while Clinton shies away from news conferences and favors scripted events. As the Times noted this week, this has forced some news outlets to cast about for creative ways to ensure that the two leading candidates get equal time.

“There’s an asymmetry between Clinton’s behavior and Trump’s behavior,” says Jamieson. “One makes it very easy to cover him. The other makes it very difficult.”

It doesn’t help that the news business itself is grappling with economic and technological upheavals that have slashed jobs, sped up the news cycle and fragmented the industry. There are fewer newspapers, fewer reporters, less time for fact-checking, and more time spent counting bylines, tracking clicks, and chasing what CBS host John Dickerson calls “the shiny object moments.”

It would be tempting to wax eloquent about the good old days, and appeal to journalists’ better angels. More relevant to the industry, though, is whether readers, listeners, and viewers are happy. Increasingly, the answer is no. Public approval of the media now stands at an all-time low of 40 percent, according to Gallup. A full 75 percent of Americans think Trump is getting too much media coverage. Some Bernie Sanders supporters were so unhappy that they protested outside CNN; one, sounding not unlike a journalism professor, demanded, “Stick to the issues.”

CNN has defended its coverage of the campaign. But FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver argues that sagging public approval has made the media more vulnerable to Trump’s attention-getting tricks. Trump has “hacked the system,” Silver wrote recently, and has “exploited the media’s goodwill and taken advantage of the lack of trust that the American public has in journalism.”

The irony of Trump’s media juggernaut, of course, is that he has aggressively attacked journalists, both as a group and individually. One of his top aides faced battery charges, since dropped, after pulling a reporter away from Trump. Trump has even spoken of using libel laws to curb press freedoms. Trump’s harangues echo those of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, who made attacks on the “liberal media” a key talking point for insurgent Republicans during the 1990s.

But like Trump’s, Gingrich’s media bashing was calculated for political effect. Gingrich’s political guru and senior counselor was Joseph Gaylord, who advised GOP challengers in his iconic campaign handbook, Flying Upside Down: “All reporters are biased, and their bias is for news.”

That, of course, explains the media’s fascination with Trump. As he himself loves to boast, Trump boosts ratings. In the first quarter of this year, primetime ad rates have spiked at the major cable news networks, rising 45 percent at CNN over last year’s first quarter. The media industry has always had a split personality—it’s a high-brow profession dedicated to truth, fairness, and accountability; it’s a gritty trade responsive to the market and driven by the bottom line.

In this high-stakes elections, journalists will continue to be torn between their thirst for clicks and ratings and their discomfiture that Trump’s irresponsible, inflammatory, and frequently unsubstantiated claims are not worthy of attention. It may be too much to expect that journalists will always take the high road. At a minimum, though, they owe it to themselves and to the rest of the nation to resist being taken for a ride.

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