Did the Media Learn Nothing From 2016?
The wall-to-wall coverage of Trump’s arraignment shows how quickly the lessons of his election have been forgotten.
The Trump Show is back. The former president’s arrest on felony charges of falsifying business records related to a hush-money payment to the adult-film actor Stormy Daniels inspired cable-news networks to return to wall-to-wall Donald Trump coverage, once a staple of their programming.
The first-ever arraignment of a former president on criminal charges is a massive story, no question about it. But by itself that doesn’t really explain the minute-by-minute broadcasting of his private plane arriving in New York Monday or the blanket coverage of his speech yesterday evening. That kind of saturation approach suggests the networks could return to a model that simply allowed Trump to monopolize coverage.
Despite Trump’s public hostility toward press outlets that failed to imitate the fawning style of the right-wing media, the Trump years were a massive boon to news organizations of all kinds because the former president’s behavior attracted an audience. This was especially true of cable news, where finding programming to fill 24 hours of coverage was much easier when the president was saying something boorish every day.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” the network’s former CEO Les Moonves said of Trump in a moment of candor in 2016. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
This goes beyond questions of individual personal preferences; most news organizations are for-profit enterprises—they need readers, viewers, and listeners in order to be attractive to advertisers. It is possible to balance the tension between profit motive and public interest, but news organizations cannot ignore it entirely. Whatever ideological objections they may harbor—and wealthy news executives have fewer than you might think—Trump is good for the television news business, and the rapid return to Trump TV illustrates how much the networks missed the guy. Boring old Joe Biden hasn’t been nearly as lucrative.
One exception last night, at least, was MSNBC, which declined to carry the speech. Rachel Maddow told viewers, “There’s a cost to us as a news organization of knowingly broadcasting untrue things … If he does say anything newsworthy, we will turn them around and report on that right away.”
Trump knows how good he is at getting the media to cover him, and he understands how to manipulate the spotlight. Not only does his ability to draw attention crowd out coverage of his opponents, but it means that the few stories about his opponents that break through tend to be eye-catchingly negative, and not detailed assessments of their policy proposals. Although blanket coverage of Trump exposes viewers to his more unfavorable qualities, his political messages get through loud and clear. He gets to define the debate, his opponents, and even the people covering him. And both Trump and his staff are aware of this dynamic, which is why they always try to make him the center of attention. Human beings tend to remember sensational lies and smears, but can get fuzzy about the dry fact-checks that debunk them.
The political coverage in 2016 helps illustrate how this dynamic works. Although most of the coverage of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was negative—as has been the case for presidential elections since the 1980s—Trump typically dominated airtime, while a disproportionate amount of Clinton’s coverage was related to the investigations of her emails, which ultimately found no deliberate wrongdoing on her part. As one 2017 report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center concluded:
Clinton’s controversies got more attention than Trump’s (19 percent versus 15 percent) and were more focused. Trump wallowed in a cascade of separate controversies. Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.
The study’s findings amounted to a validation of the Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s “flood the zone with shit” strategy. The surplus of Trump scandals can make it hard to focus on any one thing; a single negative story about an opponent can dominate whatever coverage they manage to get. Journalists idealize confrontational interviews, but confident liars who cannot be shamed over their falsehoods can turn such encounters to their own benefit, especially when interviewers are unprepared for subjects who will not admit they are lying when confronted with the facts.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there was some soul-searching in the mainstream press about the extent to which the Trump campaign had proved successful at manipulating media outlets to its advantage. But since then, there has been a backlash to Trump-era shifts, with some more traditional journalists arguing that coverage of Trump was too direct or negative, and that a return to more “objective” practices is necessary.
If those journalists are hoping that a renewed commitment to objectivity as they understand it will win over audiences who typically consume only right-wing media, they are bound to be disappointed; as the filings in the Fox News Dominion lawsuit show, what those audiences want is to be lied to. And if they wish to dismiss objections to wall-to-wall coverage of Trump as liberal bitterness, or to highlight those objections as affirmation of their own centrist credibility, then they are missing the point. Wherever you come down in the debates over journalistic objectivity—and my intent here is not to resolve those arguments—the renewed coverage of Trump threatens to replicate the same mistakes that were made last time.
The post-Trump retrospectives tended to underestimate how effective Trump was at manipulating the mainstream media throughout his presidency, because he doesn’t need the coverage to be positive to get what he wants out of it. There is a symbiotic aspect to the relationship: The more Trump demagogues against the press, the more some journalists behave like righteous crusaders, and the more easily Trump can convince his audience that he is being persecuted by the leftist media.
The claim that maybe the media were too negative in their coverage of Trump previously, meanwhile, has paved the way for an unselfconscious return to the pre-2016 era, when networks just put Trump on television all day and watched their Nielsen ratings soar. Whether individual journalists like Trump or not, he’s good for the news business. The news is also good for the Trump business. If the blanket cable-news coverage is any indication, both sides of this superficially antagonistic but mutually beneficial relationship are eager to see the Trump Show back on the air. There is no guarantee, though, that the audience will like it as much as it did the last time around.