The Media and Mr. Trump
In the aftermath of November 7th, the media has been struggling to come to terms with their surprise and dismay at a Donald Trump presidency. In article after article, the media has blamed everything from Facebook to foreign governments for the election results. But it’s also published many articles recognizing its own role in Trump’s election. To clarify the media’s role in the matter, it may be helpful to explore the perspective of the Political Scientists who have spent their lives working on these complicated issues.
A paper published this summer in the journal Political Communication by a group of nine political scientists presented a workable framework for understanding Donald Trump’s successful campaign. They attributed his success to an intersection of celebrity culture, conservative resentment of the media, and the media’s susceptibility to PR tactics designed to dominate the news cycle.
Perhaps most notably, the authors pointed out how the media attempted to use tactics to discredit Trump that indirectly reinforced his appeal. For example, the media reacted to Trump’s controversial statements and tweets by condemning them and expressing outrage. However, among conservative Americans, the past few decades have represented a widening gap between their own beliefs and the beliefs presented by the mainstream media. This schism has culminated, according to the authors, with media outrage becoming “a badge of honor, support for their dissociation from the version of reality presented in mainstream news.” Although many in the media have been blaming echo chambers for the election results, this study indicates that echo chambers may be symptomatic of a larger problem: the media has lost its credibility in the eyes of a significant portion of America.
In 2004, Michael Delli Carpini and Bruce Williams published a paper on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the failure of the media to anticipate or control the public reaction. They argued that the traditional role of the media as gatekeepers of political information, filtering out the relevant and irrelevant facts and perspectives, had come to an end. If the media was powerless before in its attempts to control the narrative, the proliferation of internet news sources in America has only amplified the problem. It’s also worth noting that although their paper made it a key point that the media had failed to anticipate the public’s contempt for the Clintons, the lessons of this failure don’t appear to have affected how the media discussed Hilary’s chances of victory early in the primaries.
Some Bernie Sanders supporters have made the argument that Clinton’s effective “coronation” by the establishment prior to the primary prevented the Democrats from running a candidate who may have been better equipped to face Donald Trump. Whether or not the perception of an establishment coronation is accurate, the data gathered by the political watchdog FAIR on the media coverage received by Trump and Sanders highlights the dangers of the media’s inconsistent methods of covering candidates. While Sanders was routinely dismissed in the media as a nonviable candidate, Trump was given excessive coverage despite his history of scandals and initially unremarkable poll numbers. The numbers reflect this starkly. Despite the reams of qualified candidates in the Republican primary and the lack of Democrats on the other side, the media chose to give Bernie Sanders a mere 17% of the estimated $55 million worth of free airtime received by Donald Trump. These differences in coverage don’t hint at some grand conspiracy, they reveal the effects that profit-seeking behavior can have on the media industry. Because Donald Trump was routinely able to deliver high ratings with his bottomless barrels of controversy, there was a financial incentive to give him more airtime. The media made two gambles in the primary, both of which backfired. They gambled that the extra attention they gave to Trump would be counterbalanced by some other wing of the Republican Party. And they gambled by letting Hilary Clinton reach the general election without pushing her multiple scandals and finding out how damaging they could be as a political weapon.
One reason the media used to justify their limited coverage of the other Democratic candidates was to appeal to Clinton’s early poll numbers. But for much of the early stages of the election, poll numbers reflect little more than name recognition. An over-reliance on polls in determining primary coverage creates the perfect environment for celebrities to enter politics, and that’s not a trend political scientists think will end with Trump. There have been numerous studies done on how celebrities convert their name-recognition into political success. Examples include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Russel Brandt, and Ronald Reagan. More so than politicians, Celebrities have built up years of experience using the media to promote themselves and develop their public images.
So next time you laugh at the prospect of President Kanye West, remember how funny President Trump used to sound.