Why the media can't ignore Donald Trump
Conventional schoolyard wisdom holds that the only ways to rid oneself of a bully are to ignore him or punch him back. In the case of Donald Trump, the American media has tried the pugilist's approach with no luck. And so former CNN anchor Campbell Brown argues in a column for Politico Magazine that it's time to stop punching back, and start ignoring the GOP presidential frontrunner. She is pleading with the TV news media to boycott covering the real estate mogul for one week.
"Let's stop being complicit in promoting his hateful and harmful demagoguery. Just for one week," Brown wrote. "TV turns [Trump] on and only TV can turn him off."
Brown is not alone. Connor Friedersdorf made similar pleas at The Atlantic back in January. Josh Voorhes at Slate has made it clear that he "would prefer to be writing about more traditional candidates." Joanna Weiss, a Boston Globe columnist, has suggested silencing Trump by disinviting him from Republican debates.
Such suggestions sound attractive to those who are annoyed with or frustrated by the seemingly impervious campaign of Donald J. Trump — and, let's be honest, that includes almost all progressives and nearly as many conservative voices in the media.
But following Brown's advice would require violating basic principles of journalistic excellence and might further empower Trump's campaign. For now, the media's hands are tied. To their keyboards, that is.
Many in the media have been mystified that Trump's support has continued to climb despite his outrageous comments, constant reproach of the other candidates, and lack of support from the Republican establishment. Some say his poll numbers are inflated, in part, due to name recognition. When polls are conducted this far out, they say, many respondents will claim allegiance to candidates with a high public profile even if they aren't likely to actually vote for them.
In other words, the media covers Trump partly because of the polls and the polls are due partly to the media coverage. In that sense, Brown's plan seems like a good way to break the cycle. If you think Trump is an arrogant blowhard with potentially disastrous policy proposals, you might secretly hope the media takes her advice and talks about something, anything, else.
And yet, the potential payoff of Brown's plan pales in comparison to the cost. It has always been the duty of journalists to cover the news, not curate it. (I am speaking mostly of reporters, not commentators, who have more latitude on what they cover and how.) While it may baffle or frustrate many in the media, there are an uncanny number of Americans who claim to support Trump in his bid to become leader of the free world (even if the polls are adjusted for name recognition). His support is not only enduring, it is expanding by almost any measure. Trump is newsworthy as a presidential candidate who appears to be near the front of the Republican pack, if not solidly leading it.
"But Trump is nuts," you say. "Shouldn't the media ignore people who are just crazy?" If it is true that Trump is indeed off his rocker, it means that the millions of Americans who support him are too. And their support is newsworthy. The press ignoring Trump is like a neighborhood watchman ignoring a broken down front door and a shattered window pane. Here we have signs of graver problems.
We would do well to remember George Clooney's award-winning film Good Night, and Good Luck, in which the chief executive of CBS, William Paley, tells the iconic reporter Edward R. Murrow, "We don't make the news. We report the news." This has always been the role of the media. We are duty bound to ensure it remains so. Perhaps the only thing less American than banning all Muslim immigration is a media that determines what they'll cover based on their preferences and personal political tastes.
"[A] journalist's primary duty isn't to produce stories that push history in the 'correct' direction — whatever that is — or to self-censor anything that might possibly encourage a 'bad' outcome," Jack Shafer of Politico rightly argues. "Sometimes newsgathering stimulates a happy result, but it's not the only way to judge the worthiness of a story."
Beyond journalists' duty to the public, ignoring Trump may have the opposite effect that Brown hopes for. A concerted effort to ignore the candidate would serve to confirm his oft-repeated charge that American media is left-leaning and biased against conservatives. These arguments are used by Trump (and other Republican candidates) to whip up constituents and raise money. In an effort to stick it to Trump, the press would end up sticking it to themselves.
Lest we forget, The Huffington Post announced in July that it would only cover Trump in the entertainment section because his campaign was "a sideshow." After he called for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," Arianna Huffington herself declared they would be moving coverage back to the politics vertical because the sideshow had morphed into "an ugly and dangerous force in American politics." In the meantime, Trump and other Republicans used The Huffington Post's gambit as confirmation of conservatives' suspicions of the press.
The media loves to hate Trump. His campaign gives the press a constant flow of content, with each story more jaw-dropping than the latest. Donald Trump is the Kim Kardashian of the Republican Party, and this election season would be far more boring for journalists if all their stories about Trump had been about Martin O'Malley or Ben Carson instead. While some in the media want to give him the pink slip, perhaps they should send him a thank you note instead.
Journalists cannot and should not snub The Donald. While reality may now be stranger than fiction, the media has only one choice: They must keep talking about Trump. And he, in turn, will keep basking in their attention.