Trump and Digital Yellow Journalism: The Perfect Match

by Michael Beaudet

Media outlets need to critically examine their treatment of Trump in order to ensure that they uphold their duty to the American public. Without a renaissance of journalistic integrity, the mass media could fail to learn from its mistakes. Donald Trump’s name has been a part of the United States media landscape since 2004 when he began hosting “The Apprentice.” His experience dealing with the media was evident throughout the presidential campaign. Although controlling narratives and gaining media attention have always been important to candidates, Trump’s unprecedented methods and manipulation of the media helped him to win the election.

A month after the election, it is critical to examine what Trump’s success means for media today.

Trump’s media skills can be conveyed through both data and anecdotes. One piece of data that demonstrates Trump’s media savvy is the amount of free coverage he received throughout the election cycle. The New York Times estimated the value of Trump’s free media coverage at $2 billion. To put this number in perspective, Clinton only received $746 million in free media. The previous Republican nominee, John McCain, spent around $400 million on his entire campaign, the same amount that Trump “earned… last month,” in free coverage. These amounts are staggering, but it still difficult contextualize the numbers without anecdotes.

For example, many major cable networks decided to broadcast Trump’s empty podium instead of important events. On March 21st, 2016, Fox News decided to air an empty podium for 90 minutes, instead of a historic press conference taking place between President Obama and Raúl Castro. On March 3rd, 2016 all three major cable news networks, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News aired an empty podium for 30 minutes while they awaited Trump’s arrival., (an organization that supports fairness and accuracy in reporting), showed that following the March 15th primaries, the networks decided to run images of Trump’s empty podium instead of speeches from Clinton and Sanders. These instances emphasize the staggering difference in media attention that Trump received throughout the campaign.

Free media coverage helped Trump to craft the narrative that he funded his own campaign and is not beholden to special interests. Additionally, media coverage alone is an effective tool to garner support. Studies by political scientists show a strong correlation between polls and media coverage. Of course, this correlation does not imply direct causation, but past studies have identified statistically significant interactions between news media coverage and polls. This would imply that the media does not control elections, but does have a measurable impact on their outcome.

Although irresponsible media coverage alone may not have been enough to get Trump elected, it cannot be dismissed.

It is important to understand how the Trump administration’s relationship with the media will impact his presidency. The relationship will likely become more adversarial.  Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post explained that there will likely be more instances where TV pundits directly challenge Trump surrogates on their controversial claims. That being said, Trump may also be developing novel tactics for shaping media coverage. Many pundits have identified his twitter habits as being the most significant break from previous presidential administrations.

One of the most noticeable breaks of precedent is his usage of Twitter to promote false claims and distract from personal setbacks. In a recent series of tweets, Trump put forward a series of salacious claims. Citing no evidence, the President-elect claimed that if one were to deduct the millions who voted illegally, he would have won the popular vote. Media outlets immediately responded to the claim emphasizing Trump’s lack of evidence. An article by The New York Times directly scolded Trump in their article’s title. Although these responses are meaningful challenges to incorrect information, the fact that the media has to call out a president-elect for pushing theories with no basis is concerning. Even more concerning is the possibility that this is a distinct strategy of the administration. We have seen Trump pushing baseless theories before, for example his claims of the election being rigged. This is not the only twitter based strategy that the administration employs.

Another tweet storm was set off recently following Mike Pence’s visit to see the musical, Hamilton. At the end of the performance, the cast offered Mr. Pence a prepared statement. On November 19th, Trump tweeted twice in response calling on the cast of Hamilton to apologize for their treatment of Mr. Pence. Media response to the illegal voting tweets was reasonable but their coverage of the Hamilton tweets may have played directly into Trump’s hands.

November 18th saw the conclusion of the Trump University civil trial. In the end, the dispute was settled for $25 Million dollars. Normally, the fact that a President-elect settled a multi-million dollar suit would receive significant media attention and public scrutiny. Articles were written about the dispute settlement, but Trump may have utilized the Hamilton Pence incident to distract from the settlement news. Although this remains speculative, some evidence can be found by examining Google Trends. The graph below, compares the search popularity of, “Trump University” and “Hamilton Pence” over the past 30 days. The red line represents Hamilton Pence and the blue line represents Trump University.

While this analysis is rudimentary, Trump’s tweets regarding the Hamilton Pence incident were also featured prominently in pieces written by both The New York Times and The Washington Post. A piece by Patrick Healy was provocatively titled, “‘Hamilton’ Cast’s Appeal to Pence Ignites Showdown With Trump”, in order to emphasize the tweets’ role in the incident. Keeping Trump’s media savvy abilities in mind, it is not hard to imagine an attempt to distract from the Trump University settlement by sparking a twitter argument about a popular stage production. In this instance, Trump is not directly promoting false information, instead he is attempting to suppress possibly damaging news. These are only two examples of novel strategies employed by the Trump administration, he has utilized more overt attempts to control media outlets in his past.

Trump has stated that he would like to change the nation’s libel laws.

Libel laws govern the legal recourse that an individual has when damaging information is published about them. He would like to make it easier to successfully sue the media. The basis for his argument is that in Britain, weaker protections of Freedom of speech make lawsuits more common when media outlets make mistakes. Without context it may seem innocuous, but Trump was referring to media outlets’ reporting of his accusers of sexual assault. Ignoring the fact that Trump offers no evidence against these claims, his attempts to silence his accusers by threatening legal action sets a dangerous precedent for the presidency. Attempting to force the media and one’s accusers into submission instead of responding to allegations does not serve the public and is a blatant abuse of power.

In the future, media outlets may need to alter how they respond to the president-elect to avoid being duped by the administration’s media abilities.

If media outlets do not want to lose the little trust that the average America still has in them, they will need to treat Trump both fairly and harshly. As Matthew Ingram of Forbes argues, the fundamental rules of the digital economy (mainly an emphasis on clicks and hits to generate revenue), present real structural challenges to mass media. Voters also need to understand that the average person is more likely to accept false news that they agree with, without checking sources. Major media outlets still value objectivity, but the rise of digital yellow journalism poses a unique test to existing media institutions. Fake stories, from fringe sites, perform well on Facebook. In our increasingly digital world, a larger proportion of the population is receiving their news directly from Facebook. Constituents on both the left and right commonly fall prey to purveyors of sensational news.

Emphasis on fairness and accuracy must also be tempered with steeled resolve. Major media outlets must be ready to counter Trump when he attempts to decide what the facts are. They also need to secure sufficient legal funds to counter the administration if it asserts more control over the media and hampers free speech. If the media do not want to be complicit in lying to the American public they must critically examine their failures in the election process. Without critical examination they may fail to implement meaningful change.

Michael Beaudet is a senior economics and foreign affairs major from the University of Virginia. He describes himself as possessing unquenchable ambition and limited knowledge, he hopes to make a difference in the world. His goals are to succeed, meaningfully impact the world in a positive way for others and be happy working hard.

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The photo above was taken by Gage Skidmore and is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license. It can be found here.

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