“The media”: ratings-hungry apologists for Donald Trump’s campaign, or in no way responsible for his ascendancy in the polls? Sexist Neanderthals who hate Hillary Clinton or corporate shills sitting comfortably in her pockets? Interested in Bernie Sanders’ surge at Clinton’s expense or ruthlessly trying to suppress his “outsider” campaign? Corporate monolith or diverse ecosystem?
We’ve now arrived at the stage in the primary cycle at which the meta-question of the media narrative has become a (if not the) major topic among voters and pundits alike. As the contours of the general election begin to take shape — it’s looking like a Clinton-Trump matchup, barring an incredible Sanders surge and/or a surprise at the GOP convention — the press is busying itself debating the question of the role the press played in influencing this outcome.
I am preparing to argue against generalizing about the media, but first, I will break my own rule by acknowledging that there is literally nothing the media loves to do more than discuss its own role. Like any other industry, we tend towards myopia and self-inflation. So it’s important to have a grain of salt at the ready, particularly as we look at the argument that the media enabled Trump’s political rise. And that’s the popular argument du jour. Last week, BuzzFeed reported on the soul-searching occurring on network TV around its Trump coverage:
Conversations with more than a dozen reporters, producers, and executives across the major networks reveal internal tensions about the wall-to-wall coverage Trump has received and the degree to which the Republican frontrunner has — or hasn’t — been challenged on their air.
Two network sources also confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations, allowing him to dictate specific details about placement of cameras at his event, to ensure coverage consists primarily of a single shot of his face.
It’s a theme that’s been echoed in the days since the piece’s publication. If pundits had treated Trump as less of a joke at first, given him less airtime, and simultaneously taken his voters more seriously, would the outcome now be different? Nicholas Kristof wondered this this weekend: “I personally made the mistake of regarding Trump’s candidacy as a stunt, scoffing at the idea that he could be the nominee. Mea culpa.” He added, “We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated.”
This handwringing column immediately inspired some excellent rejoinders. First of all, this “new” story — of the angry white voters ignored by the media elite — has been around since the ’60s, Heather “Digby” Parton writes at Salon, citing every major election in the past few decades. “[W]hether they are Reagan Democrats or Reagan Republicans or Heartland voters or Southern white males, these citizens’ needs and desires are always at the forefront of media attention in virtually every election,” Parton writes. “And their concerns are always the same: They believe they are personally getting screwed because immigrants and welfare queens and gays and feminists and foreigners are all taking what they aren’t entitled to and America is weaker and less significant because of it.”
Quite plainly, Kristof’s self-scrutiny is itself part of an established pattern, in which coastal media types scratch their heads in amazement at white American resentment and declare said resentment to be the big story they missed, even while promoting same. But this may not be representative of “the story,” either. At Gawker, Brendan O’Connor notes that in terms of numbers, Trump’s popularity is not the big story of the election. Rather, what’s notable is how often he’s been victorious, in spite of the fact that’s he’s widely loathed: “Donald Trump, despite being the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, is, in fact, wildly unpopular — especially amongst people who don’t vote in Republican primaries.” Women dislike Trump, racial minorities dislike him, liberals of all stripes dislike him, and so on — all of which suggests that the media has, at the very least, done its job in making his racist and repugnant views known.
And yet, the problem Kristof and the network employees in the BuzzFeed story identify in the media is far from nonexistent. It’s just not necessarily the foundation of Trump’s electoral success — that is the aspect of this conversation that suggests inflated self-regard on the part of the press. The press’ seeming willingness to roll over for Trump’s demands, and failure to cover other candidates and stories with equal emphasis, constitutes a failure of journalism as a profession devoted to critical, sharp truth-telling. Trump shouldn’t get extra airtime and privileges because no candidate should, particularly not a frightening demagogue.
Interestingly, this weekend, two debates raged around media coverage of Bernie Sanders campaign. There was the usual hue and cry from hardcore Sanders supporters that their candidate’s day of huge wins out west were being ignored on purpose. This simply isn’t true; nearly all the mainstream outlets, from USA Today to The New Yorker, ran pieces after his victories revisiting the question of whether he can win the nomination, while cable news covered his big night.
But social media correctly identified another issue with the coverage of Sanders’ Saturday victories: an erasure of the people of color who support the candidate. This reached a boiling point after Sanders’ victory in Hawaii, when several news outlets (including USA Today, whose correction prefaces its story) described the very diverse Hawaii as one of America’s “white” states. “If you watch just CNN and MSNBC and read the Washington Post you can create a little bubble for yourself where Bernie Sanders is just some cooky old white guy that a few dumb white guys like,” says Leslie Lee III, a Bernie voter who started the #BernieMadeMeWhite hashtag that became popular among Sanders supporters of color this weekend.
In fact, the media’s fixation on both the angry Trump voter and the white “Bernie Bro” archetypes has led to plenty of erasure in conversations about each candidate’s voters, particularly those who don’t hew to demographic projections. “The media” doesn’t bear sole responsibility for Trump’s rise or for Sanders’ inability to capture delegates — but the political press’ impetus to create easy narratives about which “type” of voter backs which candidate deserves to be called out and challenged whenever possible.