The Media and Trump: Aiding, Abetting and Underestimating

March 28, 2016, 9:31 PM UTC
Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Dallas
Photograph by Tom Pennington via Getty Images

As Donald Trump’s position at the front of the Republican presidential race has become more and more unshakeable, the media’s attitude towards him has changed gradually from a position of somewhat gleeful ridicule to concern that this man actually has a shot at becoming president of the United States—and that the media itself may have helped put him there.

The latest example of this theme (one that I explored in a recent post here at Fortune) can be seen in a recent piece by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, entitled “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump.” In it, the NYT writer says that he and the media are complicit in Trump’s rise, in part because many mainstream outlets gave him so much free coverage during the race, even when he didn’t deserve it.

I polled a number of journalists and scholars, and there was a broad (though not universal) view that we in the media screwed up. Our first big failing was that television in particular handed Trump the microphone without adequately fact-checking him or rigorously examining his background, in a craven symbiosis that boosted audiences for both.

Ann Curry, the former Today show anchor, tells Kristof that “the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit,” because he is a ratings gold mine. This view was corroborated recently by CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, who told a media conference that Trump has been a boon for the TV industry. “This is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald,” he said.

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According to one recent estimate, Trump has been the beneficiary of close to $2 billion in free media coverage since his campaign began. TV networks have spent more time showing an empty podium or a Trump headshot during his phone interviews than they have on most of the rest of the Republican field. CNN’s ratings have climbed by 170% since the race began.

Kristof goes on to say that the media also made a number of other crucial tactical mistakes when it comes to Trump, and the first was to see him as a carnival clown. “The media made a mistake by covering Trump’s candidacy at the start as some sort of joke or media prank,” Harvard political scientist Danielle S. Allen tells the NYT columnist. The Huffington Post famously tried to cover Trump’s campaign only in its entertainment section, although it eventually had to drop that idea.

At least part of the reason why Trump was seen as a joke—even after it was obvious that he had a broad level of support—is that most mainstream media outlets underestimated his appeal with U.S. voters. “We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated,” Kristof argues, and it’s hard to disagree.

CNN media analyst Brian Stelter, host of the show Reliable Sources, spent most of his broadcast on Sunday talking about how the media missed the boat on Trump, and how this was at least in part because of a certain snobbery on the part of mainstream media analysts and journalists.

One of the central questions raised by all of this media second-guessing and hairshirt-wearing is this: Could the media really have altered the overall trend of Trump’s rise to prominence and his possible nomination as Republican candidate? If TV shows hadn’t given him so much coverage, or had challenged his erroneous statements more directly, or pointed out his obvious flaws as a president, would that have changed anything?

We’ll never know the answer to that, because we can’t un-bake the Trump cake. But not everyone is convinced that different media coverage would have resulted in a different outcome. For one thing, even when Trump’s misstatements and racist commentary are singled out or highlighted as a problem, his support never seems to waver. If anything, it grows.

In a very real sense, regardless of what kind of coverage he and his policies are given by the mainstream press, Trump wins, at least in the eyes of his supporters. If he gets fawning coverage, then it’s obvious how great a candidate he is. If he gets critical coverage, then it’s obvious that he was right about the untrustworthy liberal media—something he routinely criticizes at his rallies—and he still wins.

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There’s also more than a touch of hubris in the idea that the media has somehow “made” Donald Trump what he is, or convinced millions of people to support him. The mainstream press might like to think that it has that kind of influence and power over people, the way it theoretically used to, but that’s probably not the case in today’s decentralized media environment.

In many ways, Trump is a post-media candidate. His Twitter stream, his behavior at presidential debates, his use of radio and TV to push his views through the press who cover those events (which they have to do as professional journalists, as Jeff Zucker of CNN has pointed out in his defense of the network’s Trump coverage) are all carefully calculated.

There’s no question that Trump’s status as a media entity in his own right has been cemented by a captive media industry, desperate for revenue—and not just TV, but plenty of online outlets as well. Is the media alone to blame for his appeal? No. But the early failure to take him seriously let Trump set his own agenda, and the wall-to-wall coverage since then has reinforced the impression that he is unstoppable.

The mainstream press helped to create this political bed, and now they are being forced to lie in it, and are complaining about how uncomfortable it is.

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