Donald Trump is pissed at the media, or, at least, so he says. In a news conference on Tuesday, Trump lambasted the media as “not good people,” “extremely dishonest” and “sleazy,” among other epithets. What ingratitude! The media have been central to Trump’s meteoric success in the presidential race, giving him more free time than any other presidential candidate in history. (According to one calculation, the three network evening news broadcasts in March gave Trump five times more coverage than they gave Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined.) Of course Trump himself deserves a lot of credit for his success with the media: his show of outrage notwithstanding, Donald has skillfully and assiduously cultivated them. He knows what they want (sales and ratings) and he knows how they get them—by covering what’s unusual, what’s outrageous, what’s contentious, and what’s entertaining. Trump gives them all of that. Poor Jeb Bush never had a chance.
Trump’s tirade against the media was prompted by reporting of the release of documents exposing the sleazy operation that went by the name of Trump University. Trump’s diatribe was probably not an entirely spontaneous outburst of righteous indignation. For one thing, it was an obvious case of “working the refs”: crying “bias” in the hope that reporters will in future lean the other way to disprove the charge of bias. For another, it served to distract attention from the main story of the day—the Trump University revelations. In at least some news outlets, the main story wasn’t Trump University, it was Trump’s anger with the media. (In the Washington Post, Trump U was at the bottom of page 4, while Trump’s anti-media rant led on page 1.)
Still, I think Trump’s assault on the media may ultimately backfire. Trump didn’t help himself by calling ABC’s respected reporter Tom Llamas a sleaze; reporters have some sense of professional solidarity, and they don’t like to see colleagues smeared just for doing their jobs. In truth, Llamas had done nothing untoward. He had had the temerity to question Trump aggressively on his dubiously bally-hooed fund-raising for veterans. And, oh yes—months earlier Llamas had suggested during a news conference that Trump’s use of the term “anchor babies” might be offensive.
But I think a change in the media’s treatment of Trump was coming—is coming—in any case. The change will reflect the transition from Trump the unserious but riotously entertaining contestant for the Republican presidential nomination to Trump the actual nominee and a serious threat to become President of the United States. To put it bluntly, I think the mainstream media by and large are probably repelled by the prospect of Trump in the White House. That revulsion will show up in a change in the coverage Trump gets—a change toward greater scrutiny of his mendacity, his ignorance and his irresponsibility. The change will be subtle, but effective. The media are widely scorned, but they still do influence how people view the political world. More critical scrutiny won’t move Trump’s most diehard fans, but even in our highly polarized electorate, there are a significant number of voters for whom facts and logic aren’t entirely subordinate to partisanship and prejudice. It’s hard to imagine Trump getting anything less than the 40% of the popular vote that any Republican could count on, but it is possible to imagine him not getting much more than that.
What makes me say that the media don’t want Trump in the White House? (I should specify that I’m talking about what we generally call the mainstream media—the broadcast network news programs, CNN and most newspapers and newsweeklies.) It’s not that the media have a liberal bias, as Republicans endlessly complain, but they do have biases. In left-right terms, the prevailing bias is to a kind of non-partisan centrism—to privilege perspectives that fall within the range of viewpoints that at any given time are well-represented within the two major parties. Trump’s domestic policy views don’t fall outside that range, but his foreign policy views do. His disparagement of NATO and his cavalier attitude toward the nuclearization of allies like Japan and South Korea do depart from the prevailing foreign policy consensus; they are upsetting to liberal internationalists on the left edge of the consensus as well as to neo-conservatives on the right. I think that most mainstream media reporters and commentators generally see those views as irresponsible and genuinely dangerous.
No less importantly, most reporters are well-educated and politically highly informed people. You can call me prejudiced, but I think that such people, unless they are hard-core Republican partisans, cannot help but be appalled by Trump. Anyone who is paying close attention can see that Trump is a serial, shameless liar unlike any other leading American politician; that he lacks a basic understanding of most policy issues; that many of his promises are empty if not ridiculous. (E.g., he’s going to quickly pay down the national debt.) Decent, reasonably well-educated people also tend to be turned off by overt racism. Call me over-optimistic or even naïve, but I think most of the media understand these basic realities about Trump, and, whatever their incentives are to indulge him, they will come to recognize their responsibility to show him up for the dangerous con man that he is.
How will they do that? It’s subtle but simple, and I think they are already starting. Here’s an example, from an Associated Press article this past week:
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump told California voters Friday that he can solve their water crisis, declaring, “There is no drought.”
California is, in fact, in midst of a drought. Last year capped the state’s driest four-year period in its history, with record low rainfall and snow.”
This may seem unremarkable, but it’s not the way the press typically reports on false and/or or ridiculous statements by leading politicians. More typically, the Trump quote that “there is no drought” would be reported without follow-up comment, or it might be followed by something like “Leading Democrats contested Mr. Trump’s claim, asserting that…” In other words, “he said…but they said…,” implying that there are two sides to the story, when in fact there is only one. That’s the norm of “objective,” non-partisan journalism. I think that that kind of false objectivity will gradually give way as the media recognize and make amends for their share of responsibility in creating the Trump monster. Let’s hope I’m right.
I just came across this very good analysis by sociologist and media specialist Todd Gitlin. Like me, Gitlin is cautiously optimistic that the media’s treatment of Trump is changing.