He has taken press-bashing to toxic heights
By Dilip Bobb
No US Presidential candidate in history received as much media coverage as Donald Trump. It has been mostly negative and rightfully so, but it has also been a game-changer regarding the relationship between politicians and the press. For media outlets, it raised some fundamental questions about the role of a free press in a democracy and where to draw the line when it came to covering a candidate as insulting, antagonistic, untruthful and crude as Mr Trump. Essentially, how does one cover a candidate who breaks very rule in the book, from his weird conspiracy theories, his blatant lies (Barak Obama was a Muslim, born outside America and was the founder of ISIS!), his racism, misogyny, xenophobia and, above all, his hatred and disdain for the media?
His opponent Hillary Clinton also has a toxic relationship with the press—she rarely, if ever, gives interviews to mainstream media outlets and the so-called liberal media despised her—but Trump took this relationship to an unprecedented level. Halfway through the campaign, he banned the storied Washington Post from his rallies, along with Buzzfeed, and attacked the media for being “slime” and “lying and disgusting people.” He claims reporters are part of the “globalist conspiracy” to prevent him from being elected. That inspired his followers to join in and the hostility faced by the media contingent at Trump’s’ rallies often bordered on violence. At a Trump rally in mid-October, his frenzied, almost all-white crowd hurled phrases like “Presstitutes’’ (shades of VK Singh) and “whores”. Respected brands like CNN and The New York Times came in for special treatment. It brought to mind another Republican, vice president Spiro Agnew’s infamous line about the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” It became Trump’s calling card. That prompted much debate in newsrooms across the country on how exactly Trump was to be covered so as to avoid charges of bias. The popular news website Buzzfeed sent out a memo telling reporters it was fine to call Trump “a mendacious racist” while the NYT merely did a daily highlight of the most vile and hateful statements made by Trump or his supporters. Trump has taken press-bashing further than anyone else in public life has dared to so far.
This was clearly not a normal election and so low was Trump’s stature in the media that Hillary got overwhelming, unprecedented media endorsements by default, with many publications like The Atlantic endorsing a candidate for the first time, while others had earlier endorsed only Republican candidates. There is, however a flip side to the overwhelmingly negative coverage of Trump. For one, it created what is called an Alternative Right (alt-right) media, bringing back memories of the white supremacist movement, except this is mostly online. It is led by Breitbart.com (its chairman is the manager of the Trump campaign), which is openly racist and anti-Semitic and pro-Trump. It has its clones but Breitbart took its pro-Trump campaign too far when it published a fake story about Hillary and the email controversy, stating that she was about to be indicted. They later apologized but fake news became a staple diet in this campaign. Even their established right wing electronic counterparts like Matt Drudge and Rush Limbaugh (radio) and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News have tipped further right in defending Trump against the mainstream media assault. One pro-Trump publication, the tabloid National Enquirer, according to the Wall Street Journal, had paid a woman identified by name who said she was having an affair with Trump while he was married to his former wife. The tabloid paid, says the WSJ, to kill her story, not publish it. Normal media rules clearly did not apply as far as Trump was concerned. Indeed, between social media and the right wing electronic and digital media, Trump had created his own information highway which helped him connect to potential voters. He already has an incredible 12.8 million followers on Twitter and no matter how crass and abusive his tweets were (one rant against a beauty queen who had exposed him was tweeted at 3 am), they were highlighted in the media, ensuring that Trump remained the dominant story of the campaign.
As Jack Shaefer wrote in Politico: “Not since 9/11has a single topic so colonized all of the media territories—print, television and the Web—as thoroughly as Donald. J. Trump did. More importantly, as he pointed out, it reduced the campaign to one bereft of substance. “The snowdrift of controversy that follows Trump wherever he goes, and which the press must report on, has helped freeze out these (serious) topics in favour of discussions on his ‘character’.” What that also succeeded in doing was creating a personality of cult unlike any presidential candidate in living memory. It’s a media playbook that no seasoned politician will dare to adopt so this could well be a one-off. Yet, as much as it put the focus on Trump it also turned the spotlight on the media. Both will emerge from this bruised, bloodied and battered.
Lead picture: So low has Trump’s stature been in the media that Hillary got overwhelming, unprecedented media endorsements by default. Photo: UNI