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It sometimes seems that people only ascribe influence to mainstream media whenever they wish to admonish it. So it goes nowadays, where a modish new theory blaming the media for Donald Trump’s improbable and inexorable rise has started to hold sway.
On Monday, President Obama delivered a gentle chiding to a gathered crowd of political journalists, who, in his words, have been missing substance in order to “fill the void and feed the beast with instant commentary and Twitter rumors.” Just the day before, Nicholas Kristof offered his self-flagellation blaming the usual suspects: initial dismissal of The Donald as a living laugh line, followed by lavish airtime and little fact checking.
To be sure, there are some claims that I am sympathetic to: Granting Trump an unprecedented number of phone interviews, 29 on the flagship Sunday talk shows since his campaign began, was, almost certainly, shameful deference to the campaign’s requests prompted by tantalizing ratings boosts. And we could all do better with more aggressive interviews and fact-checks.
But the albatross ought not to be hung around the media’s neck just yet. First, exit polls show that Trump has triumphed due to significant support from disaffected, lower-income, and less-educated whites—a crowd that I’d speculate isn’t terribly influenced by Politico, the New York Times’s editorial page, and even CNN. Instead, critics are mistaking the chicken for the egg. Media coverage of Trump did not manufacture his meteoric rise in the polls so much as his enduring populism forced media to cover him.
Second, even if one assumed that mass media do have an effect on Republican primary voters, it seems dubious to claim that Trump’s “earned media advantage” was actually so advantageous. A favorite analysis of the blame-the-media brigade calculates that Trump has earned $1.9 billion in “free media.” Though this number seems highly inflated (remember that the Obama and Romney campaigns drew $2 billion total in the last election), it also ignores the crucial distinction between positive and negative mentions.
From the dawn of his campaign, many of Trump’s miscues have been covered by mainstream press in excruciating detail, but never flatteringly: his mocking of John McCain, condoning violence at campaign rallies, participating in an extremity-measuring contest with Marco Rubio, having his campaign manager charged for allegedly assaulting a Breitbart reporter, endorsing torture, among many, many others. The media isn’t the problem here—primary voters simply don’t care about Trump’s antics, no matter how unconventional and crude.
Here again, I worry that hasty critics note the sharp upticks in support and media coverage, and conclude causality without much of a second thought. By the same token, Bernie Sanders’ success must be due to media mentions, even though his title may as well be socialist rather than senator.
Candid and unprompted admissions of error are, of course, a sorely-missed feature among the punditocracy, where outlandish predictions without risk of future reckoning have become something of a lucrative profession. But one shouldn’t carry the cross too quickly—and denounce one's companions as “lap dogs, not watchdogs” with too much haste—without due consideration.
Put simply, the reason people are voting for Donald Trump is that people want to vote for Donald Trump. Few may want to believe this, but the alternate explanation—that the mainstream media somehow subconsciously hoodwinked voters—doesn’t seem correct. According to polling, Trump supporters are disproportionately likely to support banning Muslims (and gays and lesbians) from entering the country, call for immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants, and even wish that the South had won the Civil War. They didn’t learn these things from the Washington Post.
For those who insist on a narrative, here’s one: Trump’s rise is the natural extension of years of dog-whistle politics embraced by Republican elites during the Obama years. Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, and Mitt Romney were all happy to flirt with the racists and nativists, the xeno- and Islamophobes for years. But only Donald had the gumption to finally ask them to prom.
Idrees M. Kahloon ’16, a former Crimson editorial executive, is an applied math concentrator in Dunster House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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