The media's terrible Trump dilemma

The mainstream media desperately wants to stop Donald Trump. It won't work.

Specifically targeting Trump was bound to backfire.
(Image credit: Illustration | Images courtesy Getty Images, iStock)

The mainstream media seems to have finally decided to dispense with any pretense of evenhandedness in how it reports on the presidential race. Across the media, Donald Trump has become the target of outright scorn.

The reasons why go all the way back to the early stages of the GOP primary contest 14 months ago.

In July 2015, The Huffington Post smirkingly crowed that it would place coverage of Donald Trump's campaign in the Entertainment section of its website. In doing so, it spoke for many other outlets that chose to be less explicit about their disdain for Trump. For months, in dozens of mainstream media outlets, Trump wasn't taken seriously. He was a sideshow candidate — the Herman Cain of the 2016 election cycle — who would flame out early, allowing attention to revert to where it belonged, on the dozen or so "serious" candidates in the race. In the meantime, covering Trump would be fun, and ratings and traffic would be high.

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By December, the mood had changed. The Huffington Post pronounced, "We are no longer entertained." That tracked with widespread sentiments among journalists. For most of the previous six months, Trump had led in the polls, and now with the primaries set to begin early in the new year, a pang of conscience set in: Had we in the media created the Trump phenomenon by giving him the equivalent of a billion dollars' worth of free advertising?

The regrets only got worse as Trump began to win primaries and caucuses, and then kept winning them. Most print and broadcast journalists presumed, first, that he would capsize before clinching the nomination, and then that his outrageous behavior would sink him for certain in the general election, opening an easy path for a Hillary Clinton victory.

But over the past 10 days, with Clinton's public fainting and pneumonia diagnosis, and then a series of polls showing a tightening race, the old pangs of conscience have returned with a vengeance, leading to what can only be described as a public-spirited panic.

In response to Trump's belated reversal on his years-long pattern of raising questions about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States and thus qualified to hold the office of the presidency, the media began expressing outright disgust and disdain for Trump — including from the front page of The New York Times, where an editorial (euphemistically called a "News Analysis") placed above the fold in the slot usually reserved for the top story of the day all but declared him a racist. Meanwhile, on Twitter and elsewhere, other journalists expressed relief that the media had finally stopped "normalizing" Trump and begun calling out his trashing of the country's political norms.

However justified these harsh judgments of Trump may be, the decision of mainstream media outlets to explicitly target the Republican nominee is a mistake that is bound to backfire, contributing to the further erosion of trust in the media and ultimately giving Trump a further boost in the polls.

To see why, one need only subject to critical scrutiny the assumption that underlies both the media's guilt about aiding and abetting Trump's rise and its newfound resolution to sink his candidacy. This assumption is that those who follow the news are passive consumers of information who are ready and willing to be molded by campaign coverage.

Has Trump benefited from mountains of free media? You bet he has — above all because it's enabled him to run a cheapskate campaign. But the exposure isn't anywhere close to serving as a sufficient explanation of his rise. One can easily imagine an alternative America in which voters observed Trump's behavior day in and day out throughout the past year and responded with disgust, giving him close to zero percent in the polls. Instead, a plurality of Republicans chose him as their presidential nominee and roughly 45 percent of all likely voters appear willing to cast a ballot for him in November.

Is that the media's fault? Well, maybe in some indirect way in which the media takes amorphous blame for contributing to the coarsening of the nation's culture and public life over the past 30 years or so. But that's not typically what journalists mean when then wring their hands about facilitating the rise of a racist demagogue. They mean that by covering his words and deeds so incessantly over the past 14 months they're responsible for catapulting him to within striking distance of winning the White House. That isn't true. The missing, and essential, ingredient is a pre-existing audience that's receptive to Trump's angry message and populist performance art.

That same pre-existing pro-Trump audience will prevent the media's current assault on the GOP nominee from having its intended effect. Can anyone at The New York Times seriously believe that there are significant numbers of pro-Trump readers out there who were persuaded away from voting for him because of its front-page "News Analysis" this past weekend? Imagine the inner monologue: "You know, the Times is right — Trump is a racist! I can't believe I was thinking of voting for America's leading 'birther.' Looks like Hillary's the one for me after all!"

This is absurd. The far more likely effect of the Times' lead-story editorial was to inspire those who already consider Trump a racist to nod along with approval, while those who support him probably concluded that they'd once again been insulted and condescended to by the mainstream media.

That can make it sound like there's no winning — like the media must give up any and all hope of influencing public opinion. That's not the case. Accurately reporting facts, conveying information, and explaining complicated details of public policy helps to shape people's views of the political world in countless ways. But the process is far slower and more subtle than many journalists, impatient with the process and with the uncertainty of its success, apparently wish it to be. The problem is that the effort to speed the process by intervening more aggressively is bound to fail.

This isn't an abstract commandment: Journalists Shall Be Nonpartisan! Rather, it's an unavoidable structural fact in a time of widespread distrust of the mainstream media. Push too hard against any candidate, even an outrageous one, and all a newspaper or cable news channel will end up doing is confirming the suspicion of that candidate's supporters (the ones the journalist presumably most wishes to reach and influence) that the media outlet concerned is biased and therefore an unreliable source of information going forward.

There is simply no way around this dynamic — no matter how much journalists wish they could make a positive difference simply by issuing indignant denunciations.

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