If It Clicks, It Sticks: Why the Press Covers Trump

Just because he’s leading in the polls, there’s no reason to give Trump so much attention.

August 26, 2015

Last Friday night, before a campaign rally in Mobil Ala. Donald Trump had the pilot of his Boeing 757 make two passes over the University of South Alabama's football stadium and dip its wings. After the airborne trumpery, the Republican presidential candidate chortled in the midst of his rambling speech, "We're live on Fox, we're live on CNN, we're live on MSNBC. Every time I speak, it has to be live. It's ridiculous."

Philip Roth in his alternate history novel of the 1940s, The Plot Against America, anticipated this high-flying spectacle. Roth imagined Charles Lindbergh as the Republican nominee against FDR barnstorming all 48 states in the Spirit of St. Louis. As Roth wrote, "Lindy flew down out of the sky in his famous plane, and it was 1927 all over again ... straight-talking Lindy ... the rugged individualist, the legendary American who gets things done by relying solely on himself."

Trump, of course, does not share Lindbergh's virulent anti-Semitism. But Roth's novel does capture the hunger for a hero that afflicts America at times of uncertainty and crisis. If only there were a man on horseback -- or better yet a man aboard his own 757 -- who could knock some sense into those loser politicians in Washington. What America needs is an outsider, a winner, who plays by his own rules and who won't ever worry about Congress and the courts.

This is a formula for a demagogue. Or, at least, a presidential candidate who does not respect the gravity of the office he is seeking. Asked on NBC's Meet the Press in mid-August whom he relies on for strategic military advice, Trump said, "Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great -- you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have generals ... you have certain people you like."

If elected, Trump in 17 months would be entrusted with America's nuclear codes. He would preside over the world's dominant military power, which is currently waging military operations from Afghanistan to Yemen. And yet Trump admits that he gets his strategic ideas from watching Sunday morning TV talk shows.

America is fortunate that few demagogues have sought the presidency in modern times. Huey Long was assassinated before he could campaign as an independent in 1936. Lindbergh and Douglas MacArthur flirted with the notion, but never ran. George Wallace, who combined racism with rants against "pointy-headed bureaucrats," never succeeded in his efforts to become more than a Southern segregationist candidate.

This shortage of precedents may help explain the media's difficulty in dealing with Trump's irresponsibility. Ross Perot, for all his businessman bluster, does not fit the pattern because he was actually serious about public policy. Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996 may have outdone Trump in his rhetorical excess. But Buchanan had also served in three separate White Houses -- and knew better than most candidates how Washington worked.

Most pundits (myself included) were quick to dismiss Trump's chances after he mocked John McCain's POW heroism and then viciously attacked Megyn Kelly following the Fox News debate. (Trump returned to his demeaning-to-women, Frank-Sinatra-in-a-nightclub insults Monday night when he tweeted that Kelly was a "bimbo").

Instead when Trump's national polling numbers (currently averaging 22 percent support) went up a tick, many political analysts panicked. It must be frightening to go on television and opine about Trump in the face of GOP voters not following your predictions.

As a result, we are in the midst of the biggest outbreak of “This Time It's Different” in recent political history. Matthew Dowd, a former top George W. Bush campaign strategist, wrote this week in the Wall Street Journal, "Right now, at least, it seems that the Summer of Trump is not turning into his fall but, rather, the continuing fall of the GOP establishment." A recent New York Times news analysis was headlined, "Donald Trump Won't Fold: Polls and People Speak." Beneath the gush, the Times story did concede that Trump's support drops to 15 percent among Republicans who have previously voted in party primaries. 

Political scientists like Lynn Vavreck can remind us that pizza magnate Herman Cain led the GOP field for six weeks in 2011. Or that Rick Perry (remember him?) dominated the news at this point four years ago. Polling analyst Nate Silver can caution, "To the extent that you’re looking at polls, you should probably adjust for name recognition and the amount of media attention a candidate is receiving."

But, of course, it doesn't matter with Trump because This Time Is Different. As a result, a candidate who is supported in early national polls by roughly one-sixth of likely Republican primary voters dominates TV screens like he is Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

A CNN analysis of the TV nightly network news shows in August found that Trump -- the bumptious billionaire -- has received more coverage than the other 16 GOP contenders combined. The GOP field, by the way, includes four current governors, four former governors, four senators and a former senator. As the Associated Press discovered, Trump provides a ratings boost to any show from Face the Nation to Morning Joe that airs his phone calls or his occasional in-person interviews.

In theory, Bernie Sanders (who is averaging 28 percent support in national polls) should be receiving the same roadblock TV coverage as Trump. Of course, that is not the case since Sanders (who has been in Congress since 1991) is not regarded as a plausible presidential nominee. But Trump, on the other hand, is treated as serious presidential timber because ... well ... there's gotta be a reason ... I wrote it down here somewhere ... ah, yes ... because he'll make America great again.

After Sen. Joseph McCarthy self-destructed 60 years ago as he ended his anti-Communist witch-hunt in a fog of alcoholism, press critics agonized over the responsible way to cover political demagogues in the future.

The conventions of 1950s newspaper journalism gave reporters little latitude in covering the comments of major figures like senators. What mattered was whether the quote from the Great Man was accurate -- not whether it was true.

In his 2005 book, The Age of Anxiety, Haynes Johnson tells the tale of the lone reporter covering McCarthy's 1950 speech in Wheeling, W.V., in which he first claimed that he had a list of 205 known Communists in the State Department. Frank Desmond, the hapless reporter from the Wheeling Intelligencer, never even bothered to ask McCarthy after the speech to see the phantom list of 205 names. Desmond just filed his story, which was then picked up and distributed nationally by the Associated Press.

A few days later in Reno, Nev., journalists witnessed McCarthy drinking heavily before and after his speech. In fact, at 4 a.m., after eight bourbons, McCarthy was angrily claiming that a newspaperman had stolen his list of Communists. The list, as reporters had already seen, consisted of just four names -- names that McCarthy's staff in Washington had found in prior newspaper stories.

During the heyday of journalism as stenography, none of this skepticism about McCarthy's tenuous relationship with the truth was reflected in the initial news stories. As press critic Edwin R. Bayley later wrote, "Reporters covered politics then as if it were a stage play; only what happened in public counted." 

Reporters have learned their lesson: From the moment that Trump charged that "rapists" were racing across the Mexican border, his dubious assertions have been rigorously fact-checked. His prior positions (support for single-payer health insurance and advocacy of a wealth tax) have been dutifully reported, along with his prior campaign contributions to Hillary Clinton.

But where journalism has changed for the worse since the 1950s is that it has largely abandoned its gatekeeper role of separating the substantive from the trivial. There used to be a theory to the news whether it was in the layout of a newspaper front page or the authority of Walter Cronkite saying at the end of a broadcast, "That's the way it is."

Yes, remnants of this honored tradition endure at newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as at National Public Radio and public television. Not too long ago, local TV news used to be ridiculed for the dictum, "If it bleeds, it leads."  Today too much of journalism in all forms is based on the simple dumbed-down metric, "If it gets clicks, it sticks."

All media organizations these days, petrified about their economic future, cater to their readers. Trump provides irresistible spectacle -- loud, vulgar and unpredictable. And Trump's status as a presidential candidate polling well offers a fig leaf of journalistic justification for this saturation coverage.

But beneath the froth there is an ugliness rarely seen in presidential politics. Viewers caught a whiff of it Tuesday night when Trump ordered his security guard to kick journalist Jorge Ramos out of a press conference as the candidate snarled, "Go back to Univision."

America is blessed with an abundance of serious 2016 presidential candidates in both parties with long records of public service.  At the moment, it is frustrating that their voices are being drowned out by the media-created Trump megaphone. But if this raucous sideshow continues into the fall, there will be a moment when what began as a farce will turn into a genuine tragedy. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at waltershapiro@ymail.com and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.