Why the Media Cannot Deal Effectively with Donald Trump

by Benjamin Studebaker

A lot of people are upset at the media for facilitating the rise of Donald Trump by giving him so much coverage and attention. This coverage legitimized him as a serious candidate and frequently gave him a free platform, allowing Trump to market himself to voters without having to buy many commercials. But we are wrong to point the finger at the media–the media is subject to certain market imperatives that made it impossible for the media to handle Trump in a way that would have been better, and this will continue to be the case going forward.

Back in 2014, I wrote a post about why TV news tends to be so bad. There are many reasons that TV news serves us poorly–a TV news station can only offer you one story at any given moment, there’s no opportunity to fact-check or click links to sources, the stories TV news chooses to offer tend to be about immediate crises or controversies rather than chronic and boring long-term problems, and TV thrives on generating fear and panic, emotional responses to problems that sometimes merit a calm, rational assessment. TV news is the worst about these things, but we all know that newspapers tend to put the big scary stuff on the front page and websites tend to offer clickbait. The thing is that many of us think we can blame the media, as if the media wants it to be this way or deliberately chooses to make things this way. It doesn’t.

Everything we hate about the media is a consequence of free market competition and the profit imperative. Media outlets have to attract eyeballs and clicks to show advertisers that people will see their ads. Consequently our media has evolved through a process of natural selection to give the public what the public is most likely to look at and click on, and it turns out the public is most likely to look at and click on material that is from a content standpoint raw sewage. People click on stuff that generates an emotional response. That means they want to watch people talk about what new controversial thing Trump said–they don’t want to watch people talk about the intricacies of say, fiscal and monetary policy. Trump upsets some people and gets other people excited. His statements are designed to elicit an emotional response. They are vague assertions of generalized intent, rather than detailed policy proposals, and they are designed to make some people extremely excited and other people extremely angry so that people will yell at each other about them, preferably on live television. Then Trump himself can call into the program and get some free air time to say whatever he thinks will improve his poll numbers. They’ll take his call because nothing attracts eyeballs more than “Donald Trump responds to controversy about controversial thing Donald Trump deliberately said to generate controversy” and because only one program can have Trump live on air at any given moment in time–time during which that program and its network know that they have a guaranteed ratings advantage against everyone else.

Trump gets coverage not because the things Trump says are substantively good or newsworthy, but because Trump attracts attention and media outlets need attention to survive. The concept of “newsworthy” is antiquated in an age where everyone knows that the stuff that’s really newsworthy no one will look at. What serious media content we do have today either relies on niche markets, limiting its influence, or it is effectively subsidized by a large amount of garbage content, which drowns it out.

There is little the media can do about this. If you decide to stop covering Trump, you lose out in the ratings and clicks to those that do, and that means you lose ad revenue and in the long-run potentially go out of business. So what many have decided is that while they may have to cover Trump, they can still cover him extremely unfavorably. Huffington Post covers Trump, but it ends every article that has anything to do with him with a disclaimer:

Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynistand birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

But Trump is an anti-establishment candidate. His appeal comes from his ability to make the establishment unhappy, and the public mistrusts the media and views it as part of that establishment. Only 21% trust TV news a great deal or quite a bit, and for newspapers the figure is only marginally better at 24%. People trust banks and unions more than the press:

It didn’t used to be this way–many more people used to trust newspapers:

In the early 90s, TV news was thought even more trustworthy:

What’s happened? To retain our eyeballs, the media has to begin producing sewage, and while we may be attracted to the sewage, on some level we all know it’s sewage. The internet has made this even more obvious–today you can read a blog post like this one reminding you that the content is sewage. So the media continues to generate profit, but its influence and power to shape the election is diminished. When you exchange trust for ad revenue, you gain money at the expense of power.

So now, when the media slams Trump, he can do this:

Ignore for the moment whether you think Trump is right or wrong about this specific New York Times piece. Instead, notice what he does. He uses social media to loudly and repetitively attack the NYT, branding it as “failing”. The people who are predisposed to like him already trust him more than they trust the media, especially the NYT, a paper with a liberal reputation in conservative circles. These people immediately take his side. Trump keeps up the attack, and for these people the story is no longer about whether Trump has helped women–it’s about how biased the NYT (and by extension, the entire establishment) is against Trump.

FOX sees this, and FOX knows that these people are its core audience, that it has to please them to retain market share. FOX has no choice but to give them the content they want, and that is content that supports Trump and attacks NYT. FOX is desperate to do this because any time FOX has deviated from supporting Trump throughout the primaries, he has treated them as if they were part of the media establishment, which is completely toxic to FOX’s brand. Trump’s fans are FOX’s core audience and they are ready and willing to trust him ahead of FOX, and that means Trump has power over FOX rather than the other way around. The low trust in the media and in the rest of our established institutions combines with Trump’s charisma to give Trump tremendous power over the media and tremendous ability to shape the way he will be covered. Trump is highly skilled at using this power. He understands that he has it and he understands how to effectively use it. He is not stupid and everything he says is designed to make the most effective possible use of his charismatic power and to take the greatest possible advantage of the weakness of the media in its ability to shape public opinion.

This is what is most disturbing about Trump–he is able to use the press to his advantage, the press knows it is being used, and the press cannot do anything about it. He represents a new era in politics in which a charismatic politician can be better trusted than the very media that is meant to check that politician’s excesses. This is an essential ingredient for Caesarism–for the rise of a political figure or “Caesar” whose extraordinary personal charisma enables the Caesar to act unilaterally against the laws and norms of the country without losing support. Indeed, the Caesar’s charisma is so powerful that the Caesar is able to attract more support the more the Caesar deviates from laws and norms.

When people compare Trump to Hitler, the most relevant point of comparison is not the racism, it’s the Caesarism. It’s the ability to flout established norms and be empowered rather than weakened in the process. Democracy rests on established procedural norms, and Caesarism is the norm-killer.

It is far too late for the press to do anything about this. It has already compromised itself in the eyes of the public such that its attacks on Trump will at best only galvanize his already committed opponents and at worst will only serve to strengthen Trump’s anti-establishment credentials. Trump will point out (and indeed, in that series of tweets, he does point out) that the press doesn’t treat “crooked” Clinton this way, and that helps him paint her as part of a corrupt and untrustworthy establishment.

The only way to stop Trump and other potential Caesars is to restore confidence in public institutions, and the only way to do that is to deliver the increases in inflation-adjusted median household incomes that the public has not seen since the late 90s:

We have little reason to believe either party establishment can do this. George W. Bush left real median household income lower when he left office than when he came in, and Barack Obama seems poised to do the same. With the possible exception of Jeb Bush, no contemporary politician’s brand reeks of the status quo more than Hillary Clinton’s. Between Trump’s charisma, Clinton’s brand, and cratering confidence in the media and the rest of our institutions, Trump has an unprecedented opportunity to smash stuff and break things. Even if he is defeated this time, four years of Clinton may not resolve the structural problems that gave rise to Trump, creating new opportunities for new Caesars down the line. Sanders offered a way out, but the Democrats didn’t take it, and they might not get another chance.

The moral of the story is that this goes much, much deeper than mere bad decisions by folks in the media this election cycle. We have an institutional confidence problem, and that is making our most charismatic political figures dangerously powerful, to the point where they are able to manipulate the media and use it as a tool. The media is meant to constrain politicians, not serve them. But the imperatives of the free market have forced our media to fundamentally compromise its ability to perform its basic role, and now Trump can shunt the press about without paying any meaningful price for doing so. The press has no recourse. It is weak, he is strong.