Since Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy in June, he’s dominated the news cycle. According to Andrew Tyndall, who monitors nightly news coverage, Trump’s campaign received 234 minutes of airtime from January to November, out of a total 857 minutes devoted to the presidential race. That’s four times the amount of second-place Jeb Bush, and twice the amount for Hillary Clinton, even though Clinton announced her candidacy in April. And that’s just the weekday nightly broadcasts from the three major networks – it does not include cable news, other broadcast outlets like PBS, or Web-based and print publications. It doesn’t include what people are saying on Twitter or Facebook, or on the morning shows that boast of their audiences outside their Manhattan studios, not the staid Sunday political talk shows. Just three nightly news broadcasts that are known primarily for covering the weather and no longer having Brian Williams.
Coverage of the Republican presidential debates has tended to revolve around Trump – questioning the legitimacy of his run, his demands for format changes and “payment” for his appearance, his inability to answer basic questions, his ratings achievements, his dismissal of Megyn Kelly. He hosted Saturday Night Live in November, prompting other candidates to cry “unfair” – and they were subsequently promised airtime.
Even when other presidential candidates from either side are brought on the air, they are frequently asked to respond to Trump’s outrageous statements. Some do it voluntarily. Some refuse. Some denounce his words but not him. In the end, it doesn’t matter – it all feeds back to Trump.
He seems to be the entire political world – but the television newsmedia, by refusing to engage him in his style, is abetting his voice and his alarmist views.
Many media outlets have expressed frustration with his incoherent, rambling, bloviating style, his refusal to play the political-media game. The Huffington Post said over the summer that it would now only have Trump-related stories under entertainment, in their quest to categorize his candidacy. But that didn’t last long. As Trump’s comments
veered into outrightly espoused fascism, an editorial by founder Arianna Huffington announced that the publication’s decision to relegate Trump coverage to the entertainment section was irresponsible because Trump’s rhetoric was so dangerous. “So as we cover his daily campaign, we’ll constantly remind the public of what he stands for, citing references and providing links,” wrote Huffington. Plenty of (online) outlets are doing this now – the Washington Post practically has a whole department devoted to this – and it remains to be seen if TV news hosts will abandon politeness to do so.
To promote this stance? Blaring headlines – all Trump related – on the homepage, with a long excerpt of Huffington’s editorial and several other Trump stories sprinkled throughout the rest of the page. (Edits mine.)
But that’s just one page on one day. And they’re not the only ones acting hypocritical; Bloomberg has done it as well.
— KStreetHipster (@KStreetHipster) December 8, 2015
But the media’s response – to decry Trump, while going overboard with covering him – is a tad hypocritical. His comments about Muslims cheering in New Jersey after 9/11 were debunked by everyone from the Washington Post to MTV. Yet for days the cable news channels continued to replay his comments, frequently repeating and considering them on the air as if, with enough scrutiny, they might find a shred of merit in them. If those comments hadn’t originally been endlessly broadcasted, it’s possible they would have been relegated to the canon of ridiculous, clearly untrue things The Donald has said, rather than propagating for days.
Debunking a lie, firmly and unequivocally, is one thing. Repeating a lie, as if it were something up for discussion, makes it sound true — or at least plausible. The media, in effect, gives credit to Trump’s mendacious ramblings. Giving Donald Trump airtime only serves to make his views legitimate, no matter how many politicians, pundits, and journalists denounce and debunk it.
The argument in favor of the excessive coverage cites the fact that Donald Trump is a frontrunner and is leading the Republican polls. But polls only cover a subset of the electorate, and they’re poor predictors of the presidential race this far out and increasingly unreliable.
Trump doesn’t just siphon airtime away from other candidates; he ends up playing an outsized role in determining the issues that get discussed, since coverage of the election contracts to focussing only on the topics Trump talks about. And when Trump is on the spot, he doesn’t put together specific policy proposals, or answer reasonable questions. He deflects, he attacks, he refuses, he disassembles. He remains unanswerable to anyone but himself.
Trump knows what he’s doing: He outlined much of his philosophy on gaining media coverage in his 1987 bestselling book, The Art of the Deal: “A little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular… I play to people’s fantasies.” He also noted that sensationalism always trumps (ha!) reality, and that journalists, in his appraisal, have little appetite for detail.
His interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe Tuesday illustrates both Trump’s strategy and the television media’s feckless complicity in it. Unlike other candidates, he often calls in to do interviews rather than through Skype or in person because it gives him an edge; interviewers are forced to look at a camera instead of a subject, which makes it easier for Trump to prattle. He’s asked to apologize, explain, and elaborate; he does none of it. Trump says something, so something must be said.
Some anchors, like Chuck Todd and George Stephanopolous, have tried to push Trump to answer questions on their shows. As the cries to hold Trump accountable reached a fever pitch, anchors have begun to no longer ignore his equivocations or play nice, and they were finally allowed, it seemed, to show some of their frustration.
But Stephanopolous and Todd didn’t go far enough. They were still overpowered by Trump, who ran over all of them, having the last word and leaving the anchors breathless and powerlesss.
Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, who listened politely for several minutes on Tuesday before raising their voices to plead for Trump to stay on topic, were hailed for not giving in to Trump – except they did. Instead of asking him specific questions, Brzezinski and Scarborough let Trump monologize for minutes (and MSNBC replayed the incident endlessly throughout the day). Even after they cut to commercial, they continued to let him speak. But instead of Trump’s rope hanging himself, it was actually the network’s acquiescence that implicated them.
On-air journalists are programmed to be both polite and objective, an impossibly tall order with Trump, whose deceits demand swift, frank rebuttal — in a word, they demand “rudeness.” With Trump, pundits’ training is working against them and harming the future of our country. He professes to be a great negotiator, which means playing hard and firm. The challenges he poses on the air leave interviewers, who may not be able to conjure an immediate fact check in real time, flustered and frustrated and letting Trump have the last word, even if his statements are outlandish and later proved false. Trump needs to be seen as what he is: a hollow know-nothing whose candidacy exists to bolster his own ego.
Why can’t the networks just shut him down? Why can’t they call him a liar to his face? He dismisses those who have tried earnestly to challenge him as not playing fair, bandying “gotcha” questions. Or he ridicules them for not doing their job, working at a failing institution, or simply being “losers.” Maybe it is time to engage Trump on his own level. Get in his face. Call him a liar. Throw numbers and facts in his face. He’ll probably still lie, but it’s damn time for Trump to be put in his place.
Photo: Donald Trump is indicating how small he wants to make everyone else feel. REUTERS/James Glover II