The Media Could Still Help Elect Trump

Trump can’t reboot his campaign unless the press reboots it for him.

Neal Gabler

Donald Trump is interviewed at the Mesa Gateway Airport in Arizona in December 2015. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at Bill​Moy​ers​.com.

The mainstream media thrives on equivocation and equalization. It is, I suppose, what they think distinguishes them from right- and left-leaning websites and Fox News, and it is, I suspect, less the result of any sense of public obligation than it is a form of self-congratulatory piety.

Can Don­ald Trump Rebound?” asks the New York­er’s John Cas­sidy in his Mon­day blog post, pos­ing what seems to be the press­ing ques­tion now. Cas­sidy assumes, like near­ly all ana­lysts, that it is a polit­i­cal ques­tion — basi­cal­ly, Can Trump get the funds, the TV buys, the infra­struc­ture, the par­ty uni­ty, and last but by no means least the piv­ot from abnor­mal­i­ty to nor­mal­i­ty that would allow the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee to close the ever-widen­ing polling gap with Hillary Clin­ton and compete?”

But the media are being more than a bit disin­gen­u­ous in their dis­sec­tions. This isn’t so much a polit­i­cal ques­tion as it is a media ques­tion, which is to say that the media may hold the answer, not Trump. Even the ques­tion itself has a media pred­i­cate — name­ly, that Trump can make every­thing he has hereto­fore done and said dis­ap­pear and then begin anew. You can’t do that unless the press lets you. You can’t reboot your cam­paign unless the press reboots it for you.

So whether Trump can win this elec­tion may be less in his hands than in the media’s. And that is not par­tic­u­lar­ly a good thing if you think that Trump is a dan­ger to the coun­try. This is why: The media have a stake in resus­ci­tat­ing Trump’s cam­paign or dam­ag­ing Clinton’s. Don’t be sur­prised if they try.

Call it the media bounce” if it boosts Trump, or the media dip” if it hurts Clinton.

Even while lav­ish­ing atten­tion on Trump and giv­ing him large­ly pos­i­tive or neu­tral cov­er­age in the run-up to the pri­maries, the main­stream media — a good many pun­dits and even a hand­ful of reporters — have been less than flat­ter­ing since then. The media seem to adore Trump as a sub­ject, a polit­i­cal train wreck that keeps roar­ing down the track and flat­ten­ing more things, because train wrecks are good copy and good TV. At the same time, the main­stream media seem to fear the prospect of Trump as president.

Jim Rutenberg’s media col­umn in Monday’s New York Times is an exam­ple of the kind of soul-search­ing some jour­nal­ists are under­tak­ing, and the kind I don’t recall ever see­ing before in main­stream pub­li­ca­tions. Ruten­berg asks whether the media have an oblig­a­tion to toss aside their so-called neu­tral­i­ty and reveal Trump for the char­la­tan, dem­a­gogue and truth-twister he is, or whether they should con­tin­ue to treat him as if he were an ordi­nary can­di­date. Bri­an Stel­ter on this past weekend’s Reli­able Sources on CNN asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion about Trump’s charges of a rigged elec­tion, even though CNN is one of the worst offend­ers in aid­ing and abet­ting Trump, and even though they put Trump apol­o­gist Jef­frey Lord and for­mer Trump cam­paign man­ag­er Corey Lewandows­ki on their pay­roll. Ear­li­er the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review called for a Mur­row moment” in the cov­er­age of Trump, refer­ring to the way Edward R. Mur­row called out Sen. Joseph McCarthy on CBS.

Trump has always been san­guine about these attacks. His oper­at­ing prin­ci­ple is that all pub­lic­i­ty is good pub­lic­i­ty, and he crows that he is gam­ing the media into giv­ing him free atten­tion and thus boost­ing his can­di­da­cy. As Greg Sar­gent observed in The Wash­ing­ton Post last week, it hasn’t exact­ly turned out that way. Some pub­lic­i­ty is so bad that it can dam­age a can­di­da­cy, espe­cial­ly if it dom­i­nates the air­waves and print — to wit, Trump’s squab­ble with the Khans.

But as a recent report on elec­tion cov­er­age from Harvard’s Shoren­stein Cen­ter shows, after receiv­ing that pos­i­tive cov­er­age dur­ing the invis­i­ble pri­ma­ry” before the actu­al vot­ing, Trump’s cov­er­age went neg­a­tive dur­ing the pri­maries. So he has been get­ting neg­a­tive cov­er­age for quite some time now — 61 per­cent to 39 per­cent neg­a­tive in the last five weeks of the pri­ma­ry sea­son — with­out it seem­ing to do him any real harm. In fact, his poll num­bers kept climb­ing throughout.

Still, even as Trump has hit a series of post-con­ven­tion pot­holes that clear­ly have depressed his num­bers, there is some rea­son to think that the pot­holes could actu­al­ly turn out to be just speed bumps as far as the media are con­cerned. In the first place, while the main­stream media may have a greater sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty in the gen­er­al elec­tion than the pri­maries, as Sar­gent posits, they nev­er­the­less thrive on equiv­o­ca­tion and equal­iza­tion. It is, I sup­pose, what they think dis­tin­guish­es them from right- and left-lean­ing web­sites and Fox News, and it is, I sus­pect, less the result of any sense of pub­lic oblig­a­tion than it is a form of self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry piety: We don’t take sides. So what hap­pened last week — for the press to crit­i­cize Trump with­out an equal blast at Clin­ton — is actu­al­ly a devi­a­tion from the norm, which also means that they are like­ly to return to the norm and be either less crit­i­cal of Trump or more crit­i­cal of Clin­ton. Think of it as a course cor­rec­tion. Either way, it could help Trump.

But there is anoth­er media predilec­tion that could work to Trump’s advan­tage: the horse race. No one needs to be told that near­ly all elec­tion cov­er­age now is about who is win­ning or los­ing. Accord­ing to that Shoren­stein study of this year’s pri­maries, 56 per­cent of the cov­er­age was horse race, only 11 per­cent sub­stan­tive, with the rest about process. We may think this is just a mat­ter of empha­sis. But it con­tributes to shap­ing the entire con­tour of the elec­tion. Because here is the thing about horse race cov­er­age: the media want to keep the race tight, even when, as in the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, it isn’t.

If you’re a sports fan, you know that noth­ing is more yawn-induc­ing than a blowout — and that is true not just for view­ers, but for broad­cast­ers as well. It sends them rum­mag­ing to the trunk of anec­dotes. That’s because jour­nal­ists want to be engaged just as much as fans do by the action on the field. It’s good for busi­ness. It’s good for one’s own men­tal state too.

That may be why near­ly every los­ing major par­ty can­di­date in the gen­er­al elec­tion over the last three decades has either got­ten a bounce or has seen the leader suf­fer a dip. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly because losers sud­den­ly gain steam or lead­ers sud­den­ly lose it. It is because the media, either through a desire to show their fair­ness or a desire to keep the cam­paign enter­tain­ing (or both), will begin to manip­u­late the cov­er­age. In 1980, despite doubts about his grav­i­ty, Rea­gan even­tu­al­ly was depict­ed as pres­i­den­tial, com­ing from behind to win con­vinc­ing­ly. As the elec­tion wore on in 1988, leader Michael Dukakis became a fool atop a tank. In 1992, Clinton’s huge post-con­ven­tion lead dis­si­pat­ed from near­ly 25 points at one time to 6 in the final vote under with­er­ing media scruti­ny of his char­ac­ter. In 2012, Rom­ney got a bounce when the media declared him the win­ner of the first debate and start­ed talk­ing about a close election.

It isn’t hard to imag­ine the media dri­ving a nar­ra­tive of a new,” more dis­ci­plined Trump, or of a more pres­i­den­tial Trump if he stays on script or doesn’t go on the attack dur­ing the debates, or of a Trump catch­ing the pop­ulist tide. It is already start­ing. See CNN’s favor­able cov­er­age of Trump’s eco­nom­ic speech.

The idea is to close the gap and give us a good game – a game we will con­tin­ue to want to watch, and that the media will want to report. The rea­sons for the bounce are near­ly irrel­e­vant. As Trump cam­paign man­ag­er Paul Man­afort put it, We’re com­fort­able we’ll get the agen­da and the nar­ra­tive of the cam­paign back on where it belongs.” Exact­ly. The narrative.

But there is one way in which Trump, who relies on the media even as he evis­cer­ates them, could injure him­self, and it is unique to him. If the media have his­tor­i­cal­ly tight­ened the race pri­mar­i­ly to height­en its enter­tain­ment val­ue, what hap­pens when a race is already loaded with a dif­fer­ent sort of enter­tain­ment val­ue? With his non­stop flubs, squab­bles, explo­sions, exag­ger­a­tions, lies and out­rages, Trump has been pro­vid­ing a huge media show, his posi­tion in the race notwith­stand­ing. For tra­di­tion­al politi­cians, the media had no alter­na­tive but to whip up game ten­sion. Trump whips up luna­cy all on his own. Essen­tial­ly, his shenani­gans eclipse the horse race.

Show busi­ness can beat tra­di­tion­al pol­i­tics. It did in the Repub­li­can pri­ma­ry. But only if the media play along. In con­tin­u­ing to make a spec­ta­cle of him­self, Trump has begun to fright­en the very reporters who gave him a free pass, and giv­en them anoth­er option from hav­ing to pro­vide that bounce or dip. He might just cement his loss in the bargain.

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recip­i­ent of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time mag­a­zine’s non-fic­tion book of the year, USA Today’s biog­ra­phy of the year and oth­er awards. He is also a senior fel­low at The Nor­man Lear Cen­ter at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, and is cur­rent­ly writ­ing a biog­ra­phy of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
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