Journalists have begun a debate amongst themselves and with their audiences about the best way to cover Donald Trump, and there’s an assumption running through that debate that I want to challenge. Many seem to believe that the kind of unvarnished coverage Trump has received, particularly on cable news, is a great and undeserved favor the media have done him.
But is that really true? Might it be that the most compelling case against Donald Trump is Donald Trump himself?
Let’s start with this. It’s fair to say that in the last couple of days, Trump’s reaction to the Orlando massacre got lots of media attention, and President Obama’s reaction to Trump’s reaction got even more. Hillary Clinton’s reaction got relatively less attention. But a new CBS poll released today showed that when people were asked whether they approved of how the three responded, the differences were striking. If we take the net approval (percentage approving minus percentage disapproving), Obama came out at plus 10 (44-34), Clinton was at plus 2 (36-34), and Trump was at minus 26 (25-51).
So Trump got plenty of coverage for his response, but it only served to turn Americans off. And because he hasn’t been happy with how the Post has covered him, Trump announced Monday that our reporters will no longer be given credentials to cover his rallies (we thus join a blacklist with many distinguished publications that have aroused Trump’s ire, including Politico, Buzzfeed, and the Des Moines Register). How should journalists respond to this move? One idea getting attention was proposed this morning by Dana Milbank, who wrote that a “blackout” would be appropriate — not refusing to cover Trump, but doing the following:
- No more live, wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s rallies and events; this sort of “coverage,” particularly by cable news outlets, has been a huge in-kind contribution to Trump.
- No more Trump call-ins to TV shows; this enables him to plant falsehoods with little risk of follow-up.
- Rigorous use of real-time fact-checking, pointing out Trump’s falsehoods in the stories in which they’re reported. That’s not injecting opinion — it’s stating fact.
These are all worthy ideas from a journalistic standpoint, and the last one has begun to happen already (Trump makes on-the-fly fact-checking possible because his lies are so frequent and so blatant, and he often repeats the same lie again and again long after it has been corrected). But we should be clear that the wall-to-wall coverage Trump has received, while problematic in many ways, isn’t necessarily a favor to him.
When we call broadcasting Trump rallies an in-kind contribution, we’re assuming not just that it’s something the Trump campaign wants (certainly true), but that it’s something they ought to want. That’s especially so when we put a dollar value on it, as a number of researchers have; for example, in March the New York Times pegged the value of Trump’s free media to that point at nearly $2 billion.
But if it were true that all that media attention was benefiting Trump, he’d be running away with the presidential race, which he plainly isn’t. Today’s Washington Post/ABC poll showed Trump’s unfavorable rating reaching 70 percent, and it’s possible, maybe even likely, that his unpopularity is not in spite of the coverage he gets, but because of it.
That’s not to say there isn’t anything wrong with just sticking a camera in front of every Trump event and broadcasting what happens. But it’s problematic not because it gives Trump an advantage but because it deprives voters of the balanced attention the candidates ought to be getting. If Clinton and Trump both give speeches on the same day, the two deserve equal attention and equal exploration. Voters need to hear what the candidates have to say, and then get the analysis and context from journalists that will bring them a better understanding of what it means.
One could argue, of course, that the Trump phenomenon deserves extra attention, because it is something different and troublesome. If you want to get a sense of what a Trump rally is like, you can read this Storified series of tweets from Jared Yates Sexton, who describes the interplay of the candidate and the audience at last night’s event in Greensboro (highlight: “Bragging that he took credentials from WA Post. Crowd yells Kill them all.”) While Clinton’s and Trump’s policy ideas deserve equal scrutiny, Trump’s rallies are sometimes newsworthy in ways that Clinton’s may not be, precisely because of the ugliness that so often emerges there.
You could also argue that the more radical Trump’s ideas are, the more attention they deserve. When a major party nominee for president calls for banning members of a religion with over a billion adherents from admission to the United States, it deserves to be discussed at length because it would be such a radical step to take and is such an affront to fundamental American ideals. And yes, part of that discussion should be Trump’s own snarling words.
Consider that the Clinton campaign — which is pretty experienced at this sort of thing — isn’t complaining about Trump’s ubiquity in the media, particularly on cable news. As Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon told the Plum Line two weeks ago, Trump “commands the news coverage because of his willingness to traffic in offensive statements, demeaning and insulting comments, and outrageous conspiracy theories. That is a recipe for commanding attention. But it is not a strategy for making inroads with the key voter groups he needs in order to improve his standing for the general election.”
During the primaries, with so many candidates fighting for attention, there’s little doubt that Trump’s ability to monopolize the media helped him enormously. But at that point, all he needed to do was reach the plurality of Republican voters who would cheer every immigrant-bashing, conspiracy-theorizing, opponent-insulting moment. The general election, however, creates a very different context. Donald Trump built his career as a celebrity on the notion that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but the presidential campaign may finally be proving him wrong.