Real estate billionaire and reality TV star Donald Trump has been called a lot of things: a fake, a cancer and even “the clown prince of slime.”
Trump’s reputation as a “straight talker” in a field of more experienced politicians reflects how fed up Americans are with the image-based, curated status quo of American politics.
It may also be the reason Trump’s standing in the polls remained unchanged even after a punishing debate hosted on Fox News, which, until the debate, had given Trump the lion’s share of political coverage (about five hours since May 1, Media Matters reported, compared to other GOP front-runners like Jeb Bush or Scott Walker, who each got just shy of two hours).
But ironically, Fox News’ hard-nosed line of questioning marked perhaps the first time a media outlet has truly taken Trump seriously as a candidate.
Other news outlets like The New York Times, Politico and the Poynter Institute applauded Fox’s grilling of Trump, and the debate earned Fox an unprecedented 24 million viewers – more viewers than Jon Stewart’s final “Daily Show” episode (3.5 million), or last year’s MLB World Series or this year’s NBA Finals games.
More than a political anomaly, Trump seems to be a media anomaly as well – his adept use of social media to communicate his message has given him an edge in the polls and forced the media that intended to treat him as a joke to pay strict attention.
Poynter Institute professor and media ethicist Robert Steele says the media spotlight on Trump distracts from issues that matter to voters and discussion of where candidates stand on hot-button issues like abortion, same-sex marriage or health care.
“We see the soft underbelly of the democratic process when we have a candidate like Donald Trump. More media outlets should be holding him accountable for what he says,” Steele said. “The unfortunate thing is that his wandering circus act is drawing attention away from other candidates and discussion about substantive issues.”
Steele says the gap between the public’s approval of an unconventional candidate and some of the media’s efforts to marginalize him are dangerous for both the future of the American government and the media that cover it. It’s not about whether or not Trump could win the White House – the issue lies with the media not telling the American public why he perhaps shouldn’t.
The media have traditionally played a significant role in vetting and cross-examining candidates about issues that matter to families, but Trump has managed to hijack that process. Trump has used social media and the fact that the media haven’t, until now, taken him seriously to escape the kind of scrutiny that would likely end the campaigns of more typical candidates.
A perfect example of that happened recently at a press conference where Univision journalist Jorge Ramos directly questioned Trump on his stance on immigration and was quickly kicked out.
“What’s interesting is that if you ask him to flesh anything out, he has very little to offer,” Media Matters vice president Angelo Carusone said. “Instead of questioning that, the media ignore it almost entirely. They’d never let other candidates get away with that.”
Some experts think that Fox’s hostility toward Trump on debate night grew partly out of anger over how little control the media have in how they cover his campaign. Because of his celebrity and media acumen, Trump has wrested control of his image away from the media in a way that traditional political candidates could only dream of, Carusone said.
“Because of the brand he’s built over decades, (the media) know that if they pass on Trump, their competitors will pick him up, and they want viewers,” Carusone said. “If you’re a typical politician, you don’t get to control your brand in the same way. You can manage it, but you can’t control it.”
Carusone says control of coverage is a game Trump has mastered, and it shows in the coverage he now gets.
“If you watch the coverage, he doesn’t give many live interviews. They’re either always on the phone or they’re often at Trump headquarters – you can see the escalators in the background,” Carusone said. “They wouldn’t tolerate that from other candidates and it just reinforces how he’s manufacturing his presence according to his needs, not theirs.”
That’s worrisome for news outlets, Rolling Stone’s Jeb Lund wrote, because the media have rarely encountered a candidate so unbeholden to either the political system or traditional media coverage as Trump – basically, because he can afford to speak and act as he pleases.
“There is no one to yank the chain and threaten to starve him of funds if he lashes out at other candidates receiving those same billionaires’ checks,” Lund wrote. “There’s no one to bring him to heel when he threatens to run an independent campaign and siphon away Republican votes and let the Democratic nominee take the election in a walk.”
Trump is essentially a preview of the future of politics, New York Iona College political scientist Jeanne Zaino says, and the media don’t like it. Gone are the days when political candidates needed the attention of the news media alone to gain notoriety – Trump initially got his message out via Twitter and entertainment media. But when early polls reported Trump led the pack of 17 GOP candidates, the press was forced to pay closer attention, says Zaino.
“Even 12 years ago, candidates were dependent on major networks to get their name out there,” Zaino said. “With the growth of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, we’re seeing a wholesale change in how word gets out, and the networks are playing catch-up on how to do this when the candidates can dictate what their coverage will be.”
While Trump rails against journalists like Fox’s Megyn Kelly and the media rushes to cover the latest Twitter tantrum, little attention is paid to his stance on issues that typically define candidates.
Take abortion, for example. One of the only times to date Trump was asked his position while in Iowa, he said he’s pro-life because the concept of abortion “really, really bothers me.”
In his ejecting of Univision’s Ramos, again, Trump also sidestepped an issue of significance for many Americans.
“By initially refusing to respond to Ramos, Trump was avoiding answers to pressing questions keeping millions of people up at night,” CNN’s Rudy Ruiz wrote.
The Poynter Institute’s James Warren contends that journalists have nothing to gain in not taking Trump seriously. Warren argued in a recent column that the fact that Trump resonates with so many Americans is precisely why his campaign warrants, at the very least, fair coverage to be balanced with his fellow candidates.
“Something of (this) sort happened long ago with some guys who were actually professional actors and were similarly disparaged. They, too, could have been journalistically segregated long ago as not meeting some arbitrary test of seriousness and legitimacy,” Warren warned. “You do remember Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, don’t you?”
Correcting the path
Steele says the media need to correct their course quickly in their approach to Trump if they hope to help America choose its next best leader. The problem with much of the media coverage to date is that too much attention is paid simply to what Trump says – not whether or not it’s true, Steele says.
“There has not been enough coverage that holds (Trump) accountable for what he says, his factual accuracy as well as the disparaging remarks he makes about others,” Steele said.
It may be difficult for reporters to trace the accuracy of some of Trump’s bombastic opinions, such as when he called Sen. John McCain a “loser” and said McCain “was no war hero” despite surviving a Vietnamese POW camp. But for other issues, like Trump’s controversial take on immigration, Carusone says accuracy matters a great deal, especially for voters who are maybe on the fence about Trump’s legitimacy. Trump has broadly characterized undocumented Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists, as well as accusing them of bringing unspecified “tremendous infectious disease” across the border into the U.S.
“Fast-forward to a year from now when immigration is back on the table and someone brings up the infectious disease myth – now we have to tackle this problem with that idea in our head,” Carusone said. “Once misinformation is injected into regular conversation, it just makes cutting to the main issue that much harder.”
USC Annenberg political communication professor Thomas Hollihan also worries Trump’s outlandish comments and style may alienate more voters than he stands to bring in.
“Trump is a product of a couple of decades of campaigning that appeals to these negative feelings about the government,” Hollihan said. “It turns some people away from interest in politics or it leads people to vote with the candidate offering the most emphatic ‘No’ in lieu of a firm strategy (to fix that nation’s problems).”
In the wake of the Fox News debate, some news outlets have taken a more balanced approach in dealing with Trump. When Trump released a 1,900-word policy paper outlining his approach to immigration reform recently, CNN posted a lengthy breakdown of the document alongside a story that quoted Trump as telling someone, “I am Batman” on the campaign trail.
Trump’s redefining of his immigration policy could be an indication that he recognizes that the press has not, before now, largely taken him seriously. Trump all but admitted he released the paper in response to media pressure in a speech made to reporters in Iowa.
“I think the press is more eager to see (the policy paper) than the voters, to be honest,” Trump said. “I don’t think the people care. I think they trust me. I think they know I’m going to make good deals for them.”
As Trump’s campaign and the coverage of it races toward the GOP nomination, the American people will have to see which version of Trump emerges: The billionaire oaf comparing himself to a superhero, or the Republican outsider whose brand of straight talk is the antidote many Americans seek to the political status quo.
“The media need to find their footing and not just report what Trump and all the candidates say, but analyze what’s said as well,” Zaino said. “Our democracy depends on it.”