Trump played the media like Nero played the fiddle
A new Harvard study on media coverage of the presidential race confirms what many already knew: We can blame the media for the rise of Donald Trump.
The overwhelming emphasis on Trump — and the stories were mostly in a positive vein — was enough to make him first in voters’ eyes. Gullible voters unwilling to look deeply into any candidate found it easier to listen to the surface coverage given to Donald Trump and decide that the real estate mogul was their man.
This vicious cycle also meant that the more light stories done about Trump, the more his poll numbers went up. This only gave media a new excuse to focus on horse-race numbers rather than substantive coverage of issues.
And before you blame cable news — which was certainly culpable in this mockery of election-year coverage — consider that this study, a new report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, left cable news out of its analysis. No, there’s enough blame to spread around, from newspapers to traditional broadcast channels, too. Don’t forget that Les Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS, told an investors’ conference in February that the all-Trump, all-the-time approach to campaign coverage was selling ads. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Trump won what the study called ” ‘the invisible primary’ — the period before a single primary or caucus vote is cast.”
In the early going, nothing is closer to pure gold than favorable free media exposure. It can boost a candidate’s poll standing and access to money and endorsements. Above all, it bestows credibility. …
Although journalists play a political brokering role in presidential primaries, their decisions are driven by news values rather than political values. Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational — the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch. …
Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories. He didn’t have any other option. He had no constituency base and no claim to presidential credentials. If Trump had possessed them, his strategy could have been political suicide, which is what the press predicted as they showcased his tirades. Trump couldn’t compete with the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush on the basis of his political standing or following. The politics of outrage was his edge, and the press became his dependable if unwitting ally.
What of the other candidates? Losers, obviously, the same way they were always described by the would-be narcissist-in-chief. As the study put it:
Candidates who are off the media agenda eventually find themselves out of the election. Seen to lack newsworthiness, they are unable to get the coverage they need to move up in the race. And when they are mentioned, they are portrayed as losers, a storyline that requires reporters to explain why.
According to the report’s analysis, in the eight media outlets studied, 63 percent to 74 percent of stories about Trump were either positive or neutral in tone. Contrast that with coverage of the Democratic race, in which coverage of now-presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton was almost always negative. The only time news stories about Clinton dipped into positive territory was after the 11-hour grilling on Benghazi that she sat through, calmly answering every question from Republican House members who were breaking out in the worst case of flop sweat since Richard Nixon.
Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end. Of the eight news outlets in our study, Fox News easily led the way. Clinton received 291 negative reports on Fox, compared with only 39 positive ones, most of which were in the context of poll results that showed her with a wide lead.
What about Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who certainly gave Clinton a run for the money? He was basically ignored in the campaign’s early days, only to be lavished with positive stories later. “By comparison, Sanders was the subject of 79 positive reports on Fox and 31 negative reports,” the study said.
The Harvard study has been the subject of scrutiny from multiple media outlets, from the National Journal to the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalism.
The National Journal story was especially harsh on the media.
[The study] found that respected print publications were just as prone as their broadcast counterparts to chasing the Trump news of the day. And it concluded that the lion’s share of Trump’s press coverage was either positive or neutral, focusing much more on his standing in the polls than on his racially tinged remarks over Muslims and Mexicans. It ended by lamenting the conflict between the media’s desire for compelling stories over the civic need to “sift out candidates on the basis of their competency.”
“Instead of bashing the press as dishonest, Donald Trump should get on bended knee and thank it,” the Poynter story said.
First, [the study] refutes the notion that reporters were in “watchdog” mode and that bad Trump news coverage outpaced the good. Second, it derides the claim that the cable news networks were a prime handmaiden of Trump via blanket coverage, while others were more restrained.”
Now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, media outlets finally seem to be taking him and his loony statements more seriously. Claiming an Indiana-born judge in the Trump University lawsuit is unfair because he’s “Mexican.” Saying that California isn’t really facing a drought. Nearly accusing the incumbent president of treason, implying that he supports terrorists. Those are just in the last few weeks.
And let’s not forget about the constant lying: Multiple fact-checkers have found that almost nothing Trump says is true. According to Politics USA, 91 percent of his utterances are false. Politifact gave a collection of his misstatements the “Lie of the Year” award in 2015 because it couldn’t pick just one. Some 76 percent of 77 Trump statements got the rating of False, Mostly False, or Pants on Fire.
So Trump might finally be facing some real media scrutiny. But it’s a little late for that, isn’t it?