When Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president earlier this week, America let loose a collective snort of derision. For years, as Trump has flirted with running for the nation’s highest office, it has seemed as though the media mogul has been stumping with the sole purpose of generating publicity for his brand. While some charge, with some merit, this is a degradation of the democratic process, it is certainly a brilliant P.R. move.
Trump’s serious as a candidate in the eyes of the electorate contrasted with the negative media coverage coming from the right in the past days is interesting. Trump’s face painted with clown makeup was plastered on the cover of the New York Post. In an article title “Witless Ape Rides Escalator,” published in National Review Online, Trump was described as having the “worst taste since Caligula.”
Some, talk radio king Rush Limbaugh among them, have pointed out that left wing media never savage their nonserious candidates.
But surely, the willingness of right-leaning pundits to call out the shortcomings of politicians, regardless of their party identification, is a good thing. It speaks to the consistency with which conservatives approach their ideals. They stick to one standard, regardless of whether the person with whom they disagree might otherwise hold the same beliefs.
Besides, becoming a candidate for national office contains an expectation of scrutiny. Presidential nominees open themselves to a bevy of questions in order that their shortcomings and hypocrisies be exposed; an individual flawed in character or policy preferences is a detriment to the nation’s welfare.
And Trump certainly has plenty of shortcomings. He did, after all, propose wiping out the national debt in the 1990s by assessing a one-time 14.25% tax on individuals and trusts with a net worth over $10 million.
That being said, there is of course the old adage of their being no such thing as bad press. Trump, who, according to research compiled by FiveThirtyEight has a net favorability rating of -32%, benefits every time his name is discussed in the press. Even negative coverage is a lightning rod for his campaign. The mere repetition of his overbearing arrogance and ridiculous, often xenophobic statements is enough to make him seem more mainstream and liked than he actually is.
So, what responsibility does the media have in this situation? The question of candidate coverage is an ever-present one. Each cycle, candidates who seem to be underdogs complain that they remain this way chiefly because they get little recognition in the news and are excluded from party-sponsored debates. Rick Santorum’s unlikely rise in the 2012 primary lends some credence to this argument.
However, the media making strategic calculations about candidate access to press has already been tried with the Equal Time Rule of the FCC’s disastrous Fairness Doctrine. The problem is, though seemingly done in the name of fairness, these kind of decisions mask the real political consciousness media adopts. Double standards may be applied, but, since the media controls the coverage, its hard for the public to know whether “fairness” is actually the standard since other stories that might be important are not covered, meaning they tend to fade into oblivion.
But an activist role, where the media picks and chooses what stories to cover based on their assessment of a candidate’s seriousness is equally troublesome. Again, the media is infused with a consciousness that has the power to shape and influence political outcomes.
What’s the solution? As with many things in a democratic system, the discretionary power of the individual. With most media models driven by ad revenue, page clicks or viewership is the literal lifeblood of a news organization. Especially where politics are concerned, pundits have a right to make coverage decisions as they see fit. But that doesn’t mean people have to accept spin they find unfair.
The coverage surrounding Trump is a tremendous example of this. It is likely much of the negative press aimed at Trump is driven by personal dislike. Frankly, there’s a lot to dislike. If this sentiment resonates with public opinion, there’s nothing wrong with it. But, if it doesn’t, individuals need to take their consumer power somewhere else so media elites don’t become the equivalent of campaign strategists.