The True Story of the Media's Role in Trump's Victory
Last weekend, the New York Times (America's leading Very Serious Newspaper) published an opinion piece from Frank Bruni in which he cautioned the media to learn from their mistakes in 2016:
Thomas Patterson of Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has been analyzing that coverage since Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency in 2015. Patterson found that for much of that year, the number of stories about Trump in the country's most influential newspapers and on its principal newscasts significantly exceeded what his support in polls at the time justified.
And those stories were predominantly positive. "The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls," Patterson wrote in one of his reports about the election. In stark contrast, stories about Hillary Clinton in 2015 were mostly negative.
Through the first half of 2016, as Trump racked up victories in the Republican primaries, he commanded much more coverage than any other candidate from either party, and it was evenly balanced between positive and negative appraisals – unlike the coverage of Clinton, which remained mostly negative.
Only during their general-election face-off in the latter half of 2016 did Trump and Clinton confront equivalent tides of naysaying[.] ...
Regarding their fitness for office, they were treated identically? In retrospect, that's madness.
It is high time for the media to learn some lessons from 2016. But which lesson does Bruni refer to? That the media need to return to their disinterested objectivity in election coverage? Far from it. A close read of the passage above shows that Bruni (and, by extension, the New York Times) thinks the problem was that the media were too objective in 2016. Bruni would have us believe that had news outlets taken an even more partisan approach to covering Trump, Hillary might have won. In short, that's hogwash. I'm not even sure if even Bruni believes it. Either he does, which means he is delusional, or he doesn't, in which case he is using the pages of the Times to advance revisionist history to conceal the real role that "news" organizations like the Times played in Trump's election.
It's time to set the record straight.
When Trump announced his candidacy, virtually no one on the right took it seriously. But the news media did – for strategic reasons, as I will show. Had the news media not given Trump wall-to-wall coverage in the early phases of the campaign, he likely would have been the Wesley Clark or the Herman Cain of the 2016 cycle – an early flavor-of-the-week candidate who quickly faded once the primaries began. Like most in-the-know kingmakers on the right, the left and the media (correctly, at first) believed that Trump was fundamentally unable to win the presidency. And so, the legacy media set to work ensuring that Trump was the Republican nominee. The goal was to guarantee that Hillary would face the weakest candidate possible. That is why, as Bruni noted, "the number of stories about Trump in the country's most influential newspapers and on its principal newscasts significantly exceeded what his support in polls at the time justified." That is why "those stories were predominantly positive." And that is why people on the right were so chagrined by the media's attempt to fix the nomination process – candidates like Rubio and Cruz, who were thought to be good matches for Hillary, couldn't get any traction in the press.
The tone of Trump's coverage changed on a dime once he had secured the nomination. Ever since they managed to turn a neophyte named Barack Obama into a presidential frontrunner after a single great speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, the elite media have recognized the power they have in influencing public opinion and, in turn, determining the outcome of public elections. Beyond that, ever since Obama's 2008 victory, those media outlets have led themselves to believe that it is their obligation to influence our elections. After all – as they show almost daily – they know what's best for us.
By the time of his nomination, the legacy media had built Trump a movement. They had no idea how difficult it would be to dismantle before November. But they tried. Mightily. Does anyone with a brain believe that mainstream news outlets just happened to discover the "pussy-grabbing" tapes three weeks before the election? If you are a rational person, you know that they were aware of those tapes well before the nomination. So why didn't we learn about them in February? Or March? Or April? The answer is obvious, even to hacks like Frank Bruni. The tapes weren't useful to the news media's agenda in April. But they were useful in October – just not useful enough.
Trump won, and in retrospect, it's a damn good thing he did – for a good many reasons, but particularly because it exposed the media's manipulation of the democratic process. The true history that I have outlined above is the real source of the media establishment's incendiary rage against Trump. It's not simply that he is a Republican president (though that would be enough). It's that they're furious that their schemes backfired. They're furious that they themselves (and no one else) deprived themselves of their divine right to choose the course of this nation.
All this explains why people like Frank Bruni are unable or unwilling to draw the proper conclusions regarding their role in 2016. The lesson should be the opposite of the one Bruni draws: the media must return to a disinterested objectivity. But learning that lesson would mean resisting their ability to unduly influence election campaigns. And that would require a recognition that the American people are at least as capable of making political decisions as our enlightened betters in the media. That can't happen. So the only response can be more bias, more vitriol, more selective "fact-checking," more self-righteousness, and more obfuscation.
It is important that people on the right read nonsense like Bruni's essay – it tells us what we are in for in 2020. Bruni is calling for those in the legacy media to work harder than ever at rigging the democratic process in this country. That's the kind of fight we're in for. Time to start preparing for it.
Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston, Downtown. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.