When I took a couple of journalists to task last year, shortly before the election, I didn’t expect it to become a theme. Neither did I expect to find myself with any common ground with Donald Trump regarding the media. While he accuses them of being liars, dishonest, and purveyors of fake news in his repetitious fashion, I like to think that I’m more civilized and understanding of their task. While what Trump says may be incorrect, what he means is spot on. There is a major problem in the copy rooms of our strongest journalistic institutions. It’s not that they are covering Donald Trump unfairly, it’s that they’re covering the Donald Trump circus, and not the Donald Trump results.
Donald Trump may be the greatest stage magician to ever live. While he’s not defying death in a way that will put him next to Harry Houdini, his attitude and plutocratic bluster and Victorian-era sexual principles are enough for him to be a David Copperfield. The rule for any magician, close-up or on stage, is to ensure that the audience is distracted. Don’t watch ‘this’ hand, watch the other hand. This hand is doing the “magic.” Our brains are remarkably easy to fool with misdirection and obfuscation. And what is simply manual dexterity suddenly appears to be magic.
Trump is not your favorite uncle.
What is the purpose, then? Unfortunately, we don’t know. That is because the very people whose job it is to see the misdirection for what it is and look deeper are the ones most caught up in it. The journalists are so personally appalled at the Trump presidency and his theatrical performances, particularly his attacks on them individually and collectively, that they just can’t move past the theatrics. The President of the United States is a powerful person and will always garner a lot of attention, both positive and negative, but let’s take a professional’s look at how this coverage of Trump compares to the past.
It’s possible that not even the most famous or infamous people of the recent or distant past — say, Barack Obama, Osama bin Laden, Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali or Adolf Hitler — dominated media as thoroughly at their peak as Mr. Trump does now.
I’m hedging because there isn’t data to directly verify this declaration. (Of course, there are no media analytics to measure how many outlets were covering Hitler the day he invaded Poland.) But there is some pretty good circumstantial evidence.
Consider data from mediaQuant, a firm that measures “earned media,” which is all coverage that isn’t paid advertising. To calculate a dollar value of earned media, it first counts every mention of a particular brand or personality in just about any outlet, from blogs to Twitter to the evening news to The New York Times. Then it estimates how much the mentions would cost if someone were to pay for them as advertising.
In January, Mr. Trump broke mediaQuant’s records. In a single month, he received $817 million in coverage, higher than any single person has ever received in the four years that mediaQuant has been analyzing the media, according to Paul Senatori, the company’s chief analytics officer. For much of the past four years, Mr. Obama’s monthly earned media value hovered around $200 million to $500 million. The highest that Hillary Clinton got during the presidential campaign was $430 million, in July.
Mr. Trump knows the value of earned media well. He leveraged it to a great extent in the election, particularly in the primary, allowing him to out-mention his rivals at a fraction of the cost. Once again, the New York Times is on the ball and gets this story right, reporting back in March 2016, that through February 2016, the Donald had nearly $2 billion of earned media against a mere $10 million (a factor of 2000:1) in spending for advertising purposes. Trump’s bombastic bloviations are inescapable, either in the news media or on social media. The world of U.S. journalism is the 24-hour Trump show. And despite the success the New York Times has in the two articles I’ve mentioned so far, they are not immune.
Meanwhile, critically important news stories that informed citizens should probably know about are being leveraged out of coverage, either in part or entirely. Citizens who scan the USA Today headlines once a day may know something about some major stories, but only those making a significant effort to stay informed can get past the signal-to-noise ratio in the press. And that too is problematic, because to get even a handful of quality non-Trump themed articles requires the reading and consumption of many, perhaps dozens, of Trump-themed items.
It is hard to say what should be newsworthy, particularly in a news cycle that moves so quickly, but here are a handful of items that I feel are remarkably under-reported for the severity of the situation indicated by the news stories that do exist.
- The Beaureu of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) is being sued for racketeering for running an illegal cigarette smuggling ring.
- Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, was killed at a Malaysian airport in what appears to be a brazen assassination. The extremely suspicious circumstances largely all point back to North Korea as the executors of the assassination. Meanwhile, North Korea has verbally attacked its ally and protector, China, for “dancing to the tune” played by the U.S. While the potential assassination is widely known, elements of the story that are very disturbing, such as the attempted raid on the morgue where Kim Jong-Nam’s body was held, are often missing.
- China, for its part, continues to carry on with new land raising operations in the South China Sea in an apparent attempt to extend its territorial water claims further out and into traditionally Philippine territory. This is an old story, but it refuses to go away.
- Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N., died suddenly in New York. “More tests are needed” to properly ascertain his cause of death. Churkin’s colleague was the voice on the other side of the phone when recently fired National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was reportedly discussing the U.S. sanctions on Russia.
- The Syrian army is largely winning against ISIS, having reclaimed the whole of Aleppo and pushed the ISIS forces to Palmyra. Americans can feel conflicted about this since we obviously have significant issues with ISIS, but we also have spent years underscoring why Bashar al-Assad has no proper legitimacy. Yet it is his army, backed by the Russians, that is eradicating the significant terrorist threat. Meanwhile, less potentially problematic to U.S. diplomatic interests, the Iraqis are also succeeding against ISIS in Mosul.
Many of these stories are international in nature, and the average American tends to be less well-informed about international news. But the pattern is actually stronger in national news. Not only can the casual news observer not tell you about the national news stories of interest that are not about Trump, neither can the dedicated news junkie. If it’s not Trump-related somehow, it just doesn’t exist in the U.S. news coverage.
In the era of Trump-news, silence cannot be assumed to be evidence of no problem.
What is Trump doing with his other hand? The one that is not so prominently displayed, perhaps in a “Nazi salute” to attract our attention; the hand that is actually steering the governing of our country.
Journalists, you have been warned. It is appealing to cover Donald Trump like he is a circus, to report every word and sound that erupts from any Trump branded orifice. Trump will ensure you get ratings and clicks. That in turn will drive ads and revenue. But when you follow the direction of the ring master, you suddenly cease to be journalists reporting on the circus; you are part of the circus yourself.