Donald Trump’s tweet about the media’s being “the enemy of the American people” was a classic distraction — in this case, from questions swirling around his team’s troubling ties with our Russian adversaries. While the FBI, CIA, and Senate Intelligence Committee investigate, a few thoughts on how news sources under Trumpian attack should respond.
When Trump tweets that CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and The New York Times stink, what should the scolded media do? For starters, they should watch their audience, ad revenues, and subscriber lists grow. The last thing they should do is droop in shame and promise to be nicer next time. No, this is working for them.
Trump may bash the traditional media to please his base of die-hards, but the anti-Trump base is a lot bigger, and it’s growing. It’s also affluent. And one way to resist is to buy what Trump condemns.
When the White House boycotted CNN, the news channel’s ratings actually rose. CNN’s audience among viewers ages 25 to 54 is up more than 50 percent this year.
MSNBC’s viewership among this prized (by advertisers) demographic has surged more than 30 percent. In January, The Rachel Maddow Show posted a 71 percent jump in total viewers.
Trump tweets about the “failing” and “dwindling” New York Times, but in the last three months of 2016, the company added 276,000 paying subscribers to its digital-only news product. Such startling gains couldn’t have happened without Trump.
The Washington Post’s website ended last year with record traffic and digital ad revenue. New subscriptions were up 75 percent over the year before, and the company announced plans to hire 60 more reporters.
Two things are happening. One, Trump has made the news gruesomely fascinating. And two, the traditional media outlets are providing refuge for those who find Trump appalling.
And here’s an encouraging trend for venerable newspapers: Younger Americans were likelier to patronize the Times, the Post, and The Wall Street Journal for election news than those 50 or older. The Pew Research Center found that younger consumers increasingly want to read the news (overwhelmingly online), as opposed to watching and hearing it.
Trump has dumped a lot of customs in how White Houses deal with the media. In the early months of his ascendancy, the legacy news organizations stumbled around, trying to maintain their rules of coverage. They seemed to feel a patriotic duty to maintain a cushion of respect around the office of president — a weakness Trump exploited.
At a certain point, though, the mainstream media understood they and Trump were playing a different game. They started smoothing out the playing field by replacing headline words such as “hedges” and “shifts” with words such as “lies.” And they stopped giving Trump and his surrogates valuable forums to answer their questions with empty propaganda.
When Joe Scarborough ditched Kellyanne Conway’s freelancing idiocy on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he improved the conversation while generating buzz for himself. Same with CNN’s Don Lemon when he cut off a Trump spokesman babbling about fake news. Were Trump in the news business, he’d do the same.
To feed the growing hunger for some version of the truth, traditional news sources must maintain standards. That means not distorting Trump positions (to the extent they can be ascertained). It means quoting Trump surrogates when they have something to say that matters.
What’s not going to happen is that one side unilaterally disarms by observing old norms while the other smashes through the barriers of a gentler political tradition. Legacy media are biting back, and that, it turns out, is good both for the news and for business.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump attends a meeting in Washington U.S., February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria