A few days ago, NBC’s Katy Tur tweeted, “Trump trashes press. Crowd jeers. Guy by press ‘pen’ looks at us & screams “you’re a bitch!” Other gentleman gives cameras the double bird.” NBC’s Chuck Todd (who on Sunday perpetuated the falsehood that Planned Parenthood performs mammograms) said, “The campaign rhetoric needs to be ratcheted back. This is outrageous and dangerous behavior.”
Oh please. Why in the world would Trump ratchet anything back? Why in the world? This is a man whose every utterance, every insult, every breath, every smirk, every everything has been given non-stop coverage by the media for the better part of a year. And thanks in large part to this pattern of outsized and pretend-outraged media coverage (among many other things, granted), Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination for president.
It’s exceedingly difficult to believe that media figures truly believe the behavior is outrageous and dangerous given their daily record of coverage. There is nothing he can say or do that the media won’t reward. Case in point: Trump is now questioning Marco Rubio’s citizenship. Rubio. Marco Rubio. Born-in-Miami Marco Rubio.
Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) February 22, 2016
Fox News (@FoxNews) February 22, 2016
As John Podhoretz put it:
I’m calling it now. If mainstream media let Trump make Rubio eligibility an issue by asking about it and playing it up, they are complicit.
— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) February 23, 2016
Spoiler: They’re complicit. You can’t cry “dangerous and outrageous” with this type of cross-network coverage that other candidates would pay millions of dollars to have. Every day is a test for the media and Trump. And every day they fail, and he succeeds wildly.
It’s Not Just How They Cover Trump
The media enabling of Trump isn’t just about how they cover Trump; it’s also about how they’ve covered Republican candidates for decades. Republican voters couldn’t be sicker of it. This is a minor example, but yesterday political reporters went wild with the news that John Kasich had lost a major “War on Women” battle by claiming his female supporters were barefoot and pregnant or something.
Here’s a representative tweet from Zeke Miller, political reporter at Time:
Kasich: “many women, who left their kitchens to go out and go door-to-door and to put yard signs up for me.” https://t.co/M70FE7GIDs
Zeke Miller (@ZekeJMiller) February 22, 2016
And everyone flipped out and mocked Kasich for his gaffe. Until it turned out that this quote was taken completely out of context. He was talking about how he had stay-at-home mothers to thank for his early electoral victories in the 1970s. He explicitly acknowledged that most women now work outside of the home. It was a huge nothingburger, although some journalists wanted to stay upset.
It was enough to make New York Post critic Kyle Smith ask:
Seriously, what do political reporters do other than quote people out of context, repeat poll numbers and interject their own opinions?
Kyle Smith (@rkylesmith) February 22, 2016
But this is the typical media approach for covering typical Republicans. “What about your gaffes?” they scream. Literally. They literally scream that. Here are two journalists memorably doing it in 2012. The first shouting reporter is Philip Rucker, national political correspondent for The Washington Post. The other is The New York Times’ Ashley Parker.
And voters are sick and tired of it. They are so sick and tired of it. The media say things that aren’t true or cover things dishonestly, and then they accuse others of being liars or gaffe-makers for disagreeing. It’s not just a gaslighting method; it makes people willing to hook up with anybody who will stop the madness.
Most normal and balanced people have no way to combat media hackishness and its power to shape the culture and electoral outcomes, particularly if they are focused on their work. And even most politicians aren’t quite crazy enough to combat this media power.
Along comes Trump, the brilliant student of exploiting public opinion. He chooses to work his magic this year in the Republican Party of all things. And one of his primary targets is the media, which he plays like a fiddle. Trump takes every moment of media-feigned outrage and uses it for his own power. Trump voters love that he’s beating up the bully of the media. They love that he’s destroying their power to declare things gaffes, much less campaign-destroying gaffes. But he wouldn’t have this power had the media not set things up through decades of shoddy coverage targeting their political opponents.
Kill the Straw Men
Let’s look at a few tweets from former American Prospect and current New York Times political reporter Nick Confessore:
“Trump is only winning because he gets so much free media” is a profound misunderstanding of the race. But it lets everyone blame the media.
Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) February 22, 2016
Then: The media ought to be more objective.
Now: The media should blackball the Republican frontrunner for the good of the country.
Nick Confessore (@nickconfessore) February 22, 2016
This, my friends, is how to stuff and burn a straw man. It’s almost Trumpian in that way. Nobody would say Trump is “only” winning because he gets so much free media. They’d probably simply want to talk about the fact that he gets so much free media and how that helps him in ways other candidates would only dream of. Or, as one Republican campaign advisor noted, Trump got 157 times as much coverage as his candidate did in the month of January.
The coverage disparities are — and have been — staggering. See “Why Do CNN, MSNBC Cover Trump Three Times As Much As Fox Does?” Various studies have shown cable channels covering Trump three times as much as all other candidates combined. One cable network gave Trump 70 percent of all their mentions of GOP candidates.
Confessore defends these disparities by saying Trump’s been the front-runner since the summer. But there are multiple problems with this, the most obvious being that they began their outsized coverage of him before he even announced, and that disparities in quantity of coverage — and we are not even talking about the quality of same — have compounding returns. The first poll that actually counted was a poll that Trump lost — but nothing prior or subsequent to the Iowa caucus changed the dynamic of around-the-clock breathless coverage of the media’s favorite candidate.
It’s not that candidates should get equal time, but let’s not pretend that there was any sense of proportion to the Trump media circus this past year. Trump is a smart campaigner, exploiting each and every weakness in American media for his gain. And his supporters are happy to have him. He’s earned his success. But I’ll be darned if the media want to pretend they didn’t play a huge role in his easy path to the nomination.