The media’s compulsive coverage of Donald Trump has come full circle. It’s now about us much as it is about him.
The media — mainstream or otherwise — is plainly freaked and flustered. Despite having given Republican voters boatloads of evidence that Trump’s opinions and temperament place him well outside the GOP or even the country’s traditional criterion for president, the real estate magnate’s inflammatory rhetoric only seems to strengthen his position in national polls.
And with every media takedown, Trump only gets stronger.
Comments from Trump that media outlets label insensitive or outright racist have had the reverse effect of further engendering the New York businessman with a significant segment of the Republican Party. The media’s impotency to sway voters has left reporters, editors and producers doubting their role as national gatekeeper/fact-checker. Collectively, the media must watch from the sidelines wondering who stole its megaphone.
“The media’s fascination has become reflexive — we’re fascinated by the fact that we’re fascinated by Trump,” Mark Andrejevic, chair of media studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California, said in a phone interview. “The fact that he’s a phenomenon has become a phenomenon itself.”
And for good reason: Even as Trump, the candidate, delivers big audiences for those who cover him, he is increasingly making all media less relevant.
As the GOP candidates prepare to gather for another debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas, Trump is the choice of a commanding 41% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters in a survey from the Monmouth University Polling Institute published on Monday; he also has the support of 38% of registered Republican voters in a Tuesday Washington Post/ABC poll. Texas Senator Ted Cruz came in second with 15%.
Labeling Mexican immigrants as rapists, attacking John McCain’s war record, spewing sexist remarks about female newscasters and a fellow candidate, or calling for a ban against all Muslims entering the U.S. would normally bounce a candidate from the race. But not this year.
Trump’s success at the polls has produced reams of media hand-wringing and finger-pointing. CNN’s Dean Obeidallah sounded a popular alarm, declaring himself incredulous that the media can’t seem to nail this guy, a serial “media manipulator.” Callum Borchers of The Washington Post, sought to deflect criticism of the media, arguing that news outlets actually have been very critical of Trump, but that hasn’t hurt his candidacy. Even The Wall Street Journal, that standard-bearer of the U.S. right-wing, appears to be astounded that Trump remains the frontrunner.
As Andrejevic argues, we seem to be living in a time of post-truth politics. Social media and an overabundance of information has created a framework whereby everyone can have their own opinion, and their own facts. Though Trump may have only a modest grasp of policy, legislative history and world affairs — arguably prerequisites for the job — he rejects the premise that he must accept the traditional parameters of the media-politician relationship.
Demonstrating abilities that belie his lack of formal campaign experience, Trump has amassed 5.3 million Twitter followers thanks in large part to a privileged life lived as a wealthy businessman and TV celebrity who has relentlessly sought the spotlight. Unlike even President Obama, who famously used Twitter and Facebook to run circles around Sen. John McCain in 2008, Trump’s understood almost innately that the impartiality and constrained opinion-making of mainstream media doesn’t travel well on social media.
“Where a news organization concerns itself with a set of self-imposed rules stemming from a sense of responsibility as a complete Source of Information, Trump concerns himself only with the material rules of his context, saying things that he knows will get the most raw response out of the most people,” writes John Herrman at The Awl.
Trump lets fly when other candidates would pull back. When the GOP frontrunner claimed that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. or that thousands of people in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers fell — memes that have been roundly debunked — it has almost no effect on his political standing.
“Speaking truth to Trump doesn’t have any purchase except to give him more attention, and he’s understood that,” Andrejevic says. “Facts don’t really matter. What matters is a kind of affective attachment to ideas, statements, claims that sit well with cable-news coverage, Internet circulation. He’s mastered that.”
While the media needs Trump to keep the attention of a rapt electorate — 24 million people tuned in to the first Republican debate, a number that has only diminished slightly in subsequent contests — Trump doesn’t really need any one media outlet to keep his machine running. And therein lies the scary subtext of the media’s fraught relationship with the Republican frontrunner: As time passes, the media needs Trump more, and he needs the media less.
“He’s been able to maintain this level of topicality where traditional news outlets, especially broadcasters, need to keep focusing on him,” said Aaron Kwittken, CEO of the eponymous brand and reputational consultancy based in New York. “And every time an individual or a group or an entire country protests one of his comments, that’s another news event.“
The media, diffuse and disparate, beholden to Twitter and the hyperactive news flow of the early 21st Century, are little match. Its role as a standard-bearer of accuracy, expertise and fact-checking has been undercut by years of backlash and a parallel universe that threatens to eclipse its very purpose.
Trump’s ascendancy comes after more than three decades of conservative voters complaining of liberal bias in the media. Publications like The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times and Fox News struck back, igniting a debate that may seem trite in an era of partisan web sites and social media.
Today, it’s not just so-called liberal media that Trump is holding hostage — it’s all media.
“Trump understands that media coverage isn’t a means to an end — it is the end,” Andrejevic said.