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How Trump masterfully exploited the structural weaknesses of the press

A media scholar on Donald Trump and perils of a Balkanized media.

CNN talking heads, clarifying things. (YouTube)

The media is a familiar target in this year’s presidential election, with both sides finding plenty to complain about. Trump, despite coasting to the Republican nomination on a $2 billion wave of free media, whines endlessly about bias.

"We cannot let the media get away with it,” Trump wrote in a recent fundraising letter. “We MUST fight back."

And Clinton surrogates like Lanny Davis have lamented the “obvious display of media bias” in this election. According to Davis, the mad dash to win news cycles has created a false equivalence between the candidates.

In many ways, the conversation about bias has missed the larger point. The more important question is simpler: Is the media doing its job? Is it informing the public about things that matter?

This is what a lot of people want to know.

To get a broader view of the media and this campaign, I spoke with Tom Rosenstiel, an author, researcher, media critic, and the current executive director of the American Press Institute.

The author of The Elements of Journalism: What News People Should Know and the Public Should Expect, Rosenstiel has focused on the relationship between journalism and democracy for much of his career. He’s especially interested in the ethics of journalism in the age of the internet, when the market is saturated with partisan outlets.

Our conversation, edited for concision and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

You’re a media historian. What the hell is going on this year? How did a TV huckster hijack the Republicans’ nomination process?

Tom Rosenstiel

Well, he's the nominee of his party. He won. He defeated the other established candidates including people who raised more money than he did. And he did that by persuading more voters to support him than were willing to support other people. So, that’s the process by which we hold elections. It's not as though he hijacked the process or something like that.

Now, that's different than asking if he’s qualified or if he used his celebrity to win. It’s not that unusual for unqualified people to seek office at this level. We’ve had doctors with no political experience and a president of a restaurant association with a marginal electoral background run as well. They didn’t get as far as Trump, but Trump has been an extremely famous person for a very long time.

But I would challenge the idea that he's an illegitimate nominee in any manner. He had to go through the process, however broken or insane that process may be.

Sean Illing

The media has been hammered from all sides in this election, and often for good reasons. Everyone finds bias wherever they look.

What do you think of the coverage?

Tom Rosenstiel

The first thing to understand about the dynamics of this election is that, as you have more and more outlets covering a race, more power feeds to the candidate. It's a seller's market. If you've got five candidates, and there's 10,000 media outlets, those candidates have a lot of control over their message. Somebody will carry it, and candidates know how to use that to their advantage.

Trump recognized this better than his rivals, and it started with his tweets. One of the remarkable things about Trump is that he actually tweets. He’s not using a staffer or a social media guru.

Whether it was by accident or by some other divine providence, Trump recognized the power and intimacy of Twitter. He used it to build up his celebrity, and he understood that provocation means more coverage, more followers, more attention. He gets on a granular level what works and what doesn’t.

Sean Illing

Trump traffics in celebrity, so it’s no surprise he’s adept at using media to self-promote. But is the media responsible for propping him up? Did we, in fact, create the monster that is candidate Trump?

Tom Rosenstiel

Well, they didn't create it, but they are an enabler of it. Two other things had to happen. One was he had to have a lot of rival candidates. That was an important condition. Because his support was always a minority of the party, so he would not have done as well in a two or three-person race.

The other thing has to do with his fellow candidates, almost all of whom just assumed Trump was going to implode. And so their strategy was to sit idly by, wait for the implosion, and then pick up his supporters after he self-destructed. They waited and waited until it was too late.

Sean Illing

I have to push back a little bit here. I agree that the media enabled Trump at every step, but there’s a case to be made that it’s actually far worse than that.

For example, when I hear someone like Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS, say that Trump “may not be good for America” but he’s “damn good for CBS,” that sounds like nihilism to me. And there’s no doubt that many in media share Moonves’s point of view.

To call this merely “enabling” seems to me too generous.

Tom Rosenstiel

Moonves is the CEO of CBS, but he’s not the president of CBS News. So he's describing a phenomenon that he’s observing; he's not the guy who's actually making the decisions about what should go on at CBS TV News. I think that’s worth noting.

The reason I say the media didn’t create Trump is that they didn’t gather together and say, “hey, let’s make Donald Trump president of the United States” — it doesn’t work like that. You can put a guy on the air a lot, but if nobody watches, you stop doing it.

Sean Illing

Part of the problem is that the media is invested in promoting and prolonging the horse race as long as possible, which intensifies the spectacle of it all. That, perhaps as much as anything, has helped Trump in this cycle.

Tom Rosenstiel

Absolutely. The cable networks are staging primary debates six months before the first primary, in the summer of the year before. Why? Because it makes money for them. On a Tuesday night in August, the year before the election, they're putting on a debate, and suddenly they have 3 million more viewers. I’m not sure it counts as civic discourse, but it’s good for the bottom line.

There’s an exploitation going on here that the media justifies for self-interested reasons. They recognize that most of the people in the debates are not serious candidates — they're running to be talk show hosts, or something like that. In any case, the belief is that this stuff is not actually deciding the election.

But this stuff gets talked about, and that’s why they do it. Trump understood that and he’s exploited it masterfully. He recognized the rules of the game and took advantage of it in a way we haven’t seen.

The press is often blamed for the politics we get; what usually happens is the press exaggerates and reinforces the phenomenon that it observes. It doesn't create the phenomenon – it makes it bigger; it feeds it. And then the phenomenon wouldn't be able to contain itself without the press being a willing enabler.

Tom Rosenstiel.

Sean Illing

If I ask you to think about the impact of the Internet and 24-hour cable news on our politics, what springs to mind?

Tom Rosenstiel

The biggest impact is that I can assert anything I want as a newsmaker and I'll get attention for it. There’s no gatekeeper, no one who decides what’s true and what’s not, no one who gives context and decides what’s newsworthy.

The dynamics have simply changed. Trump can tweet something, for example, and it gets enormous attention. By the time anyone has considered whether it’s relevant or true, it’s already out there and there’s a whole reality that’s sprung up around it.

The press is involved in annotating the news that people have already consumed. And that news is coming at them in fragments, in piecemeal form. As opposed to asking, okay, what’s the story here?

Sean Illing

So the media isn’t so much involved in informing people as it is in capturing their attention?

Tom Rosenstiel

Yes, we’re basically working the attention marketplace here. You’ve got 10,000 publishers vying for the public’s attention, and some of them are doing it as political activists/entrepreneurs, like

This is commercializing political ideology. Fox News and MSNBC are in this business as well. They’re all doing what I call the journalism of affirmation.

And then you have some zones of media that are in a more traditional pasture, verifying stories and determining what’s important. But they’re competing against these other models, which is very difficult.

Sean Illing

So given how balkanized the media is and given the fact that now there are so many outlets, so many sites where you go to have your worldview beamed back at you, is there any chance of living in a shared reality anymore?

Tom Rosenstiel

That’s a really great, important question, because the challenge of the internet is that there's so much misinformation out there, you encounter stuff all the time that’s been totally decontextualized or inflated or fabricated.

And now you have the algorithms, particularly on Facebook, which are actively creating narrow filter bubbles that echo things we want to hear because they think you’ll click on the links. This is dangerous in terms of preserving our shared discourse.

Sean Illing

This election certainly feels different to me. Politicians have always been full of shit. But now there is literally no consequence for bald-faced lies. Trump, obviously, has looked directly into the camera and said things that are just patently false, and nearly half the country doesn’t give a damn.

Is that new?

Tom Rosenstiel

Well, it doesn't mean that people don't care about lying. The point of fact-checking and the journalistic exercise is not that the person who lies less wins. That is not why we do the fact-checking. It is just so voters know what is a lie and what isn't; and also, not all lies are the same. There are qualitative differences, and some lies clearly bother people more than others.

What's remarkable about Trump's approach is that he has assumed that you don't need to worry about something being true in this fragmented environment. His gamble is that he can say he didn’t say something and people will believe it, no matter how ridiculous. I think this is starting to catch up with him, though.

But none of this is really new. In 1968, a guy named Joe McGinniss wrote a book called The Selling of the American President. The thesis then was essentially that ideas in politics no longer matter. It’s about the image you project. It’s all just shadows on the wall.

Trump may have taken this to another level, but it’s not necessarily new.

Sean Illing

As a student of American media, do you think it’s fair to say that the profit motive and the commercialization of news has irremediably corrupted the incentive structure?

Tom Rosenstiel

I wouldn’t say “irremediably corrupted,” because you still have players like the Washington Post and NPR and the New York Times and Vox (and others, of course) who’ve done work that you can really point to as examples of good, meaningful journalism.

But there’s no doubt in my mind that the amount of attention that Trump has gotten is alarming, and the comment you captured from Moonves represents the reality of news as a commercial commodity.

Sean Illing

Are you confident that the media can still perform its role as an arbiter of discourse in our democracy?

Tom Rosenstiel

I think there two competing models that will continue to do what they’re doing. One is the organizations that seek to define newsworthiness and feel embedded in these old traditions, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. They’re going to distinguish themselves even more because audiences are going to be looking for context, for someone to tell them what the hell is going on.

So I think the people who have decided to stake their claim around that kind of journalism have thrived and will continue to distinguish themselves. And that will actually help them commercially, too, because there's less and less of that. In a crowded media marketplace, quality and integrity are a way of standing out.

But they are also going to compete with these other models, which makes it hard. I suspect we’re going to see a shaking out of sorts, in which crummy news organizations that don’t have a lot to offer fade away and the ones that really do great work are going to stand out and benefit.

But you’re going to see more of the anti-civic, attention-seeking organizations that will do anything it takes to get clicks. That, of course, is disastrous for our civic life, but it’s not going away. The Breitbarts of the world will be enabled by Facebook and the internet more generally.

Together, these forces will work against the New York Times’s of the world, and that’s just the reality.