Trump plays the media like a fiddle

Trump on the South Lawn
(White House Photo)

Politicians have long recognized that the political media is susceptible to gaming.

The trade’s vulnerabilities are well known: Political reporters are irresistibly drawn to conflict, are suckers for spectacle, are desperate for attention, and are easily bored.

But no one has ever played it like Donald Trump.

Trump, with his background as a reality TV star, has a preternatural talent for exploiting all of those weaknesses. Way more often than it should, the political press is covering what Trump wants them to cover, using the terms Trump wants them to use, and serving as a powerful vector for spreading his disinformation.

That has been the case since he started his campaign — and benefited from an estimated $2 billion in “earned” media because TV producers couldn’t take their eyes off him.

Impeachment – unlike any other storyline since he announced his campaign for president – threatens Trump’s control over the narrative and the vocabulary of political coverage. But no one should underestimate his ability to reassert control by attacking the press, or Joe Biden or Rep. Adam Schiff – or by changing the subject to Turkey, or whatever is next.

Vox editor Ezra Klein (@EzraKlein) has called Trump “the most successful media hacker out there”:

When he gives some nuts rally, where he says a bunch of stuff that’s really off-the-wall, we’re all on it, we’re all tweeting about it, we all feel we’re missing the story if we ignore it. He crowds out all these other stories and he’s showing how to hack our coverage, and now others are learning how to do it too.

The Caravan Frenzy

The most obvious example of Trump sending reporters scrambling to do his dirty work came in the weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, when he used his megaphone to spread fear of the so-called “migrant caravan” in Mexico and – as Nicholas Kristoff (@NickKristofwrote in his New York Times opinion column, “news organizations became a channel for carefully calculated fear-mongering about refugees.”

Progressive writer Joshua Holland (@JoshuaHol) wrote at the time:

Producers, editors and reporters haven’t figured out how to curate the news coming from Trump, how to focus our attention on what’s important. Trump floods the zone with bullshit, they dutifully convey it, and we end up swimming in it. Every night, cable panelists dissect whatever nonsense Trump wants them to talk about, regardless of whether they support or oppose him. He’s still calling the shots, and creating controversy out of thin air.

Trump is particularly good at getting attention from journalists “because he’s so impulsive and belligerent and has few thoughts that can’t be reduced to a sound bite,” Holland wrote.

Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan (@sulliviewwrote around the same time:

Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose, which is why you’ve heard so very much about that migrant caravan in recent weeks.

With the president as their de facto assignment editor, too many seem to respond “how high?” when Trump says jump….

Skepticism and context make an appearance in media reports, but it’s often too little and too late. And, even when smart and nuanced, the sheer volume of immigration coverage plays into Trump’s hands.

The effect of that coverage on national discourse was nothing short of devastating. As New Yorker writer Masha Gessen (@mashagessen) noted, “the story of the procession across Honduras and Mexico has served to normalize more of Trump’s xenophobic anti-immigrant rhetoric.” By adopting Trump’s frame of reference, she wrote, reporters “reinforce his politics of hatred and fear-mongering.”

But it wasn’t just that one story, of course. A recent study of four major newspapers by the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society found an increase in the use of denigrating terms and growth in the citation of extreme anti-immigrant groups from 2014 to 2018.

In particular, it “found that a large proportion of the growth in denigrating language across media sources studied can be found within quotation marks, raising interesting ethical questions for news outlets faced with harsh, denigrating language coming directly from newsmakers, including the president of the United States.”

Another survey, by the liberal group Media Matters for America, found that major media outlets failed to rebut Trump’s misinformation 65 percent of the time when they tweeted his false or misleading comments. “That means the outlets amplified Trump’s misinformation more than 400 times over the three-week period of the study — a rate of 19 per day.” Their conclusion:

The data shows that news outlets are still failing to grapple with a major problem that media critics highlighted during the Trump transition: When journalists apply their traditional method of crafting headlines, tweets, and other social media posts to Trump, they end up passively spreading misinformation by uncritically repeating his falsehoods.

Trump’s best trick is getting the media to spread his insults.

Jon Allsop (@jon_allsop), who writes for the Columbia Journalism Review’s must-read Media Today newsletter, explained:

Consciously or not, Trump is feeding us nuggets packed with enormous linguistic power. They appeal to a childlike desire to make an easily digestible morality tale of a complicated world.

When Trump lies, the press calls him out. But even though his insults are often just as mendacious, they escape without scrutiny.

The Post’s Sullivan valiantly but fruitlessly called for that to end in May 2019:

Journalists may not be able to ignore these nicknames altogether, but they should stop doing Trump’s dirty work for him: amplifying their power through prominent placement and frequent, unquestioning repetition.

And that’s really the least they could do.

Turning the Tables

Some other ways they could stop letting themselves get played are outlined in a fascinating report by Syracuse University communications professor Whitney Phillips for the New York–based research institute Data & Society, in which he discusses “specific editorial best practices designed to minimize narrative hijacking by bad-faith actors, and to maximize reporters’ ability to communicate critical truths.”

The report’s suggestions were crafted mostly with alt-right online extremists in mind, but they are also quite translatable to Trump. They include:

  • [R]eporting should avoid framing bad actors as the center of the narrative. Doing so only reinforces the idea that similar kinds of behaviors will result in nonstop attention from journalists and across social media users…
  • Stories should focus instead on the systems being gamed… the communities being created… and the performative strategies being employed…
  • [W]hether subjects are directly interviewed or are observed on social media, reporters should weave the performative nature of manipulators’ actions into the story….
  • No matter the specific framing, stories should avoid deferring to manipulators’ chosen language, explanations, or justifications.

In short, reporters should recognize that they are getting played and not just resist it, but actually turn the tables by asking and answering key questions such as: Is this being done just for effect? What is the desired effect? Who is the audience? And how is it a misrepresentation of or distraction from reality?

It would be a much better game.


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