SCREEN BURN

Why the Media Dance to Trump’s Tune

Donald Trump may be good for ratings, but in its determination to court him, TV news has sacrificed its duty to interrogate the Republican candidate and his policies.

02.22.16 6:00 PM ET

Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump is breezily circumnavigating the news media, even as his candidacy benefits from far more free television time than any of his rivals.

The reality television star-turned-possible GOP nominee, the double-digit winner of the Feb. 9 New Hampshire and Saturday’s South Carolina primaries, seems to be harnessing an explosive confection of xenophobia, populism, and entertainment. It’s a demagogic strain that runs from Huey Long to Father Coughlin to Glenn Beck in modern political history, and from Willie Stark to Lonesome Rhodes to Howard Beale in popular culture, and plays into the media’s, and especially cable television’s, reflexive bias toward conflict and drama.

And—like the pundits and politicians that Trump’s election victories have bewitched, bothered, and bewildered—the news media haven’t figured out what to do about it.

“The media laps him up, and mainstream political observers are flummoxed,” said University of Georgia media studies professor Jeffrey P. Jones, a pioneer in the academic field of political entertainment television. “For a sizable percentage of Republican primary voters, Trump has transformed the whole traditional nature of what constitutes acceptable political rhetoric, and they just don’t care if he says stuff that in polite society would be considered sexist, misogynist, or racist. Any other candidate would be disqualified.”

Indeed, a Public Policy Polling survey last week of 897 likely South Carolina primary voters indicated that 70 percent of Trump’s supporters believe the Confederate flag should still be flying at the State Capitol, while 38 percent wish the South had won the Civil War; 80 percent, meanwhile, support banning Muslims from entering the United States and 62 percent want a national database of the Muslims living here, while 40 percent would support shutting down all mosques. Meanwhile, 31 percent of Trump’s South Carolina supporters would like to bar homosexuals from entering the country.

Jones, who directs the George Foster Peabody Awards program, said Trump is exploiting a “bombastic-populist, hyper-masculine” presentation “that works really well as a show for the media.”

“In some ways,” Jones added, “he’s performing the Celebrity Apprentice on a political stage.”

Journalist-turned-academic Olivier Jutel, who has been monitoring the progress of modern American populism from the University of the South Pacific in Fiji, said Trump’s electoral success is an unintended consequence of the Republican establishment’s efforts to exploit the Tea Party movement for its own political and business purposes.

“Trump is surely the id of this Republican-far-right coalition,” Jutel emailed The Daily Beast. “He has untethered this force from Fox News and the Koch brothers who attempted to instrumentalize Tea Party foot soldiers for various reasons…

“The right-wing populists are a Frankenstein unleashed by Karl Rove and no longer under the party’s control…[Trump’s populist supporters] may well be driven by base passions, but they are not stupid. The far-right know very well that the Koch [brothers], Fox [News], Sheldon Adelson et al are using them, and they are enjoying destroying the institutions of the Republican Party. Righteous vengeance is a powerful force.”

Jutel added: “Trump is an agent of enjoyment…Through him, the far-right can enjoy the denigration of women, unvarnished xenophobia and telling China to go fuck itself. He is the crass billionaire they all wish they could be.” (The management of Fox News, no doubt, would take strong issue with Jutel’s including their “fair and balanced” cable network in this disreputable menagerie.)

Meanwhile, according to a new study by television analyst Andrew Tyndall, the yellow-haired, potty-mouthed real estate mogul has received a wildly disproportionate share of coverage on the network evening news programs—a combined 327 minutes on ABC, CBS, and NBC in calendar year 2015, compared to 57 minutes each for Jeb Bush and Ben Carson, 22 minutes for Marco Rubio, and 21 minutes for Ted Cruz.

Those figures don’t account for cable news outlets on which Trump is a near-constant presence, with his campaign rallies frequently carried live and occasionally in full.

But wall-to-wall coverage doesn’t necessarily mean sharp critical scrutiny.

Amid a surprising campaign season in which Trump has pretended he never said or skated away from countless public utterances and actions that might have irreparably damaged a more conventional candidate, it was a lamentably rare instance last Thursday night when someone actually pinned him down on live TV.

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Perhaps significantly, however, that someone wasn’t a journalist.

“One statement you made, I’m really having trouble getting over frankly, and I wanted to ask you about it,” conservative activist Oran Smith said in confronting the Celebrity Apprentice billionaire during CNN’s candidate town hall in Columbia, S.C.

“As a matter of fact,” Smith continued, “when I was watching the [Feb. 13 CBS News] debate, and you made this statement, I had to apologize to my children for the words that came out of my mouth when you said what you said…that George W. Bush, which was our last Republican president, a man I respect greatly, a person that we really fought for when he was up against a lot of pressure, that he lied to get us in the war in Iraq. That stung me very deeply.” 

 “OK,” the frowning candidate muttered.

“I’m just wondering, given some time passing,” Smith persisted, “perhaps you’ve rethought that. Would you be willing to rethink that?” 

“Well, a lot of people agree with what I said,” Trump shot back, before adding evasively, “And I’m not talking about lying, I’m not talking about not lying. Nobody really knows why we went into Iraq. The Iraqis did not knock down—it was not Saddam Hussein that knocked down the World Trade Center, OK?”

“So do you think the president of the United States, George W. Bush, lied to the American people?” Smith asked again.

“Well, look, I’m not going to get your vote, but that’s OK,” Trump retorted, clearly resentful at having his expensively shod feet so visibly and uncomfortably held to the fire.

“I’m just giving you another shot at it,” Smith replied.

In the end, Trump never really gave an answer, even after being prodded by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper. But he didn’t look happy at having been forced to reveal himself (for the moment, anyway) as no different from any other standard-issue politician oleaginously dodging an unwelcome question—never mind Trump’s preferred self-presentation as the fearless enemy of political correctness.

“This guy was a bulldog—he chomped down on Trump’s ankle and wouldn’t let go,” said University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, contrasting Trump’s assailant with “all the media poobahs who want to get along with Trump because Trump has great ratings, and they don’t want to be banned. They don’t want those nasty tweets sent out about them [by Trump], because it causes an avalanche of abuse from his followers.”

Sabato continued: “This guy [Oran Smith] had no stake except to let Trump know how angry he was…He wasn’t going to hold back. He didn’t have to worry about Trump in the future. Trump meant nothing to him. He wanted an answer to that question.”

This was the same town hall, by the way, in which Anderson Cooper mercilessly grilled Trump on his fast-food inclinations, while the candidate regaled viewers with his account of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley’s honeymoon at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach resort.

“They were in the tower. And I will tell you, he was up there one week with her, and he never came down, so I don’t know what was going on, but they got along,” Trump recalled, to appreciative laughter from the studio audience.

“The point I’m making,” Sabato continued, “is that Trump is such good copy and drives ratings to the extent that he isn’t getting the kind of direct personal examination that he needs as a candidate for president.”

There have been exceptions, of course. Last November, Meet the Press moderator Chuck Todd famously challenged Trump on his specious claim that thousands of Muslims in northern New Jersey partied in the streets when the World Trade Center towers came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001.

“You wouldn’t make a business deal based on re-tweets and hearsay,” Todd scolded Trump, who, unlike politicians of the recent past, was permitted to participate by phone on the venerable Washington Sunday show. “You’re running for president of the United States. Your words matter. Truthfulness matters. Fact-based stuff matters.”

“Take it easy, Chuck, just play cool,” Trump cautioned the NBC News host.

Despite Todd’s admirable attempt to hold Trump accountable for his ugly and potentially dangerous fabrication, the candidate appears to have suffered zero political consequences; nor has he seemed to benefit any less from the deferential and credulous treatment he too often receives from his media interrogators.

Similarly, unlike any other presidential candidate who publicly mocked someone’s physical disability—as Trump did at a campaign rally in South Carolina regarding Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who suffers from a disfiguring congenital joint disease—he has continued to thrive, even after offering an implausible denial of malicious intent.

Ditto Trump’s apparently misogynistic reference to Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle—also vehemently if not convincingly denied by the candidate, who was upset by Kelly’s questions about his temperament during the first Republican debate last August—and his more recent promise, during last week’s MSNBC town hall, to be “neutral” in any presidential attempt to strike a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians.

While Trump’s seat-of-the-pants vow of neutrality regarding the United States’ closest Middle East ally has drawn predictable fire from Cruz, Rubio, and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton—as though the media-political complex would hold him to the same standard of precision that traditionally applies to White House aspirants—Trump has yet to incur political injury for what, in another candidate, would be considered a major gaffe.

Larry Sabato, for one, lays much of the blame on the commercial imperatives of television news outlets.

“What Trump has proved is that there are no standards that these journalists won’t compromise to get what they want,” Sabato argued. “They’ll sacrifice any standard on the altar of ratings. We’ve known that for years…But it seems we’ve lowered standards permanently because of the media treatment of Trump.”