Politics & Policy

Trump’s the Wrong Man to Attack the Media

Media room at the GOP debate in Simi Valley, Calif., September 15, 2015. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
But the media need to be held accountable.

‘If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn’t put false meaning into the words I say,” Donald Trump tweeted on Sunday, “I would be beating Hillary by 20%.” “My rallies are not covered properly by the media. They never discuss the real message and never show crowd size or enthusiasm.” “I am not only fighting Crooked Hillary, I am fighting the dishonest and corrupt media.”

Apparently, the Republican presidential nominee has just discovered that the media are biased.

Well, who can blame him? After all, he and the media, especially the television media, have had a mutually beneficial relationship for much of this election season. As the New York Times wrote this spring, Trump earned the equivalent of $1.9 billion in free media between the announcement of his candidacy in June and March. In February, he earned $400 million in free media — as the Times notes, “about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign.” Meanwhile, Trump spent just $10 million on ads.

Or put it in hours. “Trump has been the subject of the clear majority (62 percent) of candidate-focused TV coverage of the Republican race,” FiveThirtyEight.com wrote in March. When CNN — which Trump has now nicknamed the “Clinton News Network” — mentioned a Republican presidential candidate during the primary season, 55 percent of the time it was Trump. (Second was Marco Rubio, with a measly 10.2 percent.) It was a commonplace during the primary season for networks to cut away from a speech by another candidate in favor of an empty Trump-campaign podium.

During that time, Trump had plenty of complaints about certain individuals in the media — Bill Kristol, and pants-less Jonah Goldberg, and Joe Scarborough on whichever days he didn’t kiss the ring — but Trump was more or less happy to ride a tsunami of fascinated coverage to the Republican nomination. Meanwhile — the Times again — “prime-time advertising rates spiked at the major cable news networks in the first quarter of the year, rising 45 percent at CNN and 23 percent at MSNBC, compared with the same period the year before, according to Kantar Media, which tracks ad spending.”

Of course, the stakes have changed. Watching Donald Trump Hulk-smash the Republican party was amusing for National Press Club types, but the prospect of his doing the same to the federal government is less so. The result is a whiplash-inducing, if entirely unsurprising, about-face. In July, Hillary Clinton nearly caught up to Trump in free U.S. media ($513 million to his $533 million).

Out-and-out media bias is obviously on display. While the press has reached for smelling salts over Trump’s “Obama is the founder of ISIS” comments, it studiously ignored Hillary Clinton’s calling Trump “the recruiting sergeant for ISIS” or claiming in December (falsely) that the terrorist organization was using him in recruiting videos. Likewise, during the dispute last autumn over whether or not to take Syrian refugees, President Obama suggested that he couldn’t “think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate” (read: evil Republicans!). And in June, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted that “the Senate GOP have decided to sell weapons to ISIS.”

Meanwhile, the bombshell revelation that the Department of Justice refused to pursue the FBI’s request for an investigation into the relationship between the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton’s State Department was buried in paragraph 26 of a CNN report.

Ho-hum.

However, Trump’s media coverage is obviously also due to his late-stage case of foot-in-mouth disease, compounded by his extraordinary penchant for dousing campaign fires with diesel fuel. In the last month, Trump has engaged in a weeklong spat with the parents of a fallen American soldier; he joked about the potential assassination of his opponent; and he made his comment about Obama and ISIS a several-day ordeal by claiming he meant it literally — no, sarcastically! — no, literally-sarcastically-metaphorically!

As is so often the case with Trump, he’s not entirely right, and he’s not entirely wrong. There’s rank media bias. There’s also legitimate media criticism of a public figure.

Conservatives must disentangle Trump’s narcissism from legitimate criticisms of the media.

But as is also the case with Trump — and uniquely with him — the line has become impossible to distinguish because it has been absorbed into Trump’s personal pathologies. The “dishonest and corrupt” media are dishonest and corrupt not just because they engage in bias, but because they are not favorable to Donald Trump. That’s why Trump has banned, or threatened to ban, the Washington Post, Univision, Buzzfeed, Politico, the Des Moines Register, and the Times’s Maggie Haberman. It’s also why he’s threatened to “open up our libel laws” so that he can prosecute journalists who write “horrible” articles about him.  The “disgusting” media apparently now include The Federalist’s Mary Katherine Ham, about whom Trump recently said: “I don’t know her, but she says only bad things.” That’s not a critique of genuine media bias. That’s thin-skinned Trump being upset that a reporter fails to prostrate herself before him.

Among the many toxins that the conservative movement and the Republican party will have to expel come November is the confusion of Trump’s world-consuming narcissism with legitimate criticisms of institutions that deserve to be held accountable. The media are obviously one such institution. A study published last year in the journal Big Data & Society examined more than 130,000 news articles about the 2012 presidential election produced by more than 700 American and international outlets, and found that “overall, media reporting contained more frequently positive statements about the Democrats than the Republicans. Overall, the Republicans were more frequently the object of negative statements.” That’s not surprising, and balancing that coverage is long overdue. But Trump’s attacks on media bias — which will continue to be diligently parroted by his supporters — have made that harder, by incorporating under the header of “media bias” everything that displeases Donald Trump. Disentangling real institutional problems from Trump’s self-obsession will be among the most difficult tasks facing post-Trump conservatives.

Republican voters thought they were nominating the one candidate who could face down the liberal media. It turns out that they picked the one candidate uniquely vulnerable to them.

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