Politics & Policy

Trump Has Cried Wolf Too Often on Media Bias

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Trump squandered his opportunity to effectively turn media bias to his benefit.

Early Sunday morning, Donald Trump began a Twitter rant against the national media’s coverage of his struggling presidential campaign.

It continued throughout the day:

Welcome to the Republican party, Mr. Trump. We on the right have been dealing for decades with the liberal media deck stacked against us.

It’s no secret that the vast majority of people working in the news-media profession lean left: Their inclination is to present Democratic politicians and liberal views in a more favorable light than Republican politicians and conservative views. This inclination stems from a lack of discipline and of a diversity of thought in the newsroom, and it trickles down from the major institutions to the local outlets.

The bias is clear in the types of stories that are hyped, and those that are downplayed. It’s apparent in the information that’s willfully omitted, and the partisan assertions that go unchallenged. Simply put, the mainstream media help advance liberal narratives, while burying those that come from the Right.

This has been well documented over the years, and the public is largely aware of it, even if they aren’t impervious to its effects. With the power to change the outcomes of elections, the media have long been recognized as villains among right-leaning thinkers. So when a Republican leader blasts those who are a part of it, the rhetoric makes for a pretty useful rallying cry.

Donald Trump has long understood this, and has made great use of it, but this election year is different. The Republican nominee’s problem hasn’t been the media. In fact, the media have been his biggest asset.

Trump won the Republican primary in large part because his provocative rhetoric and celebrity presence commanded a virtual monopoly of the media’s campaign coverage. Where Trump’s 16 opponents had to spend big bucks to try and get their names and messages out to the public, he was handed a couple billion dollars of free advertising (some have referred to it as earned media). And outlets were certainly happy to grant that level of coverage, being that the Trump circus show generated big ratings and readership.

Of course, that advantage didn’t keep Trump from clobbering the media from the onset of his candidacy. He lambasted reporters and news outlets whenever their coverage of him was less than flattering. Whenever they hounded him for making an offensive remark, he’d dishonestly claim that he was misquoted or taken out of context and that they were just out to get him.

Trump even set his sights on conservative media, taking unwarranted shots at the moderators in that first Fox News debate, and publicly trashing Megyn Kelly over the several months that followed — simply for asking tough but fair questions. Some might even remember that Trump used to portray FNC as an enemy to his campaign quite routinely. Not so much these days.

In the short term, the vilification was helpful. Primary voters were appreciative of a candidate who fought back against the media and was unwilling to let himself be defined by them. The base believed that John McCain and Mitt Romney had largely taken the silent “high road” when it came to dealing with unfair media narratives and that it was a major reason for why they lost. Trump’s disobedience paid dividends in the polls.

As time went on, other GOP candidates began to use the same strategy, taking more and more opportunities to drag the media over the coals when responding to criticism. It got to the point where basic media inquiries were commonly denounced as unjust “attacks,” motivated by ideological bias.

Trump has been as busy as ever griping about how the media are treating him, but the complaints are now largely discarded and laughed off — even when he’s right.

I saw this trend as potentially dangerous, and I wrote about my concerns in a piece for National Review back in February. In it, I likened the practice to the playing of a “victim card,” in which the candidates were refusing to take responsibility for their individual weaknesses and mistakes.

I believed that just as repeated, baseless declarations of racism have a desensitizing effect on the public, so the candidates’ overplaying of the mediabias card would lead to legitimate examples of media malpractice (of which there are plenty) falling on deaf ears.

Unfortunately, that appears to be what has happened. Trump has been as busy as ever griping about how the media are treating him, but the complaints are now largely discarded and laughed off — even when he’s right. The expiration date on the media-bias card has passed.

Too many times, he’s claimed to have never said something that he was captured on video saying. Too many times, he’s insisted he was taken out of context when the context was clear and reported accurately. Too many times, he’s outright denied cold, hard facts presented to him by interviewers. Too many times, he’s cried wolf.

And now, the more Trump does this, the more neurotic he’ll sound, and the more it will hurt him with the general electorate.

The other day, conservative columnist and CNN personality S. E. Cupp tweeted, “Calling out media bias/malpractice is cool. Turning the American public against ‘the press’ wholesale for not liking you is communism.”

Though I’m not convinced Trump would interpret that particular analysis as an insult, I think Cupp brings up a good point about the perception he has created by continually skewering the media, rather than carefully choosing his shots and making them count.

Caught in the reckless crossfire, of course, has been the rest of the Republican party and the conservative movement (even though a good chunk of the latter has tried to distance itself from Trump). They’ll now have a much harder time, in the future, convincing the public that they’re being misrepresented and held to a different standard from the other side, when they absolutely are.

The irony in all of this is that Trump was supposed to be the Right’s answer to media bias. One of the nominee’s big selling points to the base (often promoted by his surrogates) was that he could (unlike McCain and Romney) talk over the media, bust right through their politically correct, liberal narratives, and speak directly to the American people. God knows he’s been given a loud enough microphone.

Instead, his temperament, his lack of self-discipline, and his breathtaking unpreparedness for the role of a general-election candidate has opened up an unprecedented number of doors through which the media have effectively dismantled him. And while all of the expected double standards and slanted coverage are certainly in full force, as they are in every election cycle, the dismantling has come primarily through honest reporting and an open microphone.

— John Daly is an author of thriller novels and a political and media columnist for BernardGoldberg.com.

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