Traditional Media Is Not Equipped to Handle Trumpism

I like this Twitter exchange because I think both people have discovered something absolutely correct and key to understanding the limited political success of Donald Trump.

It almost doesn’t matter what controversy Jeremy Peters is referring to there because what actually matters is that too many people are susceptible to right-wing media efforts to galvanize them against the left with small, exaggerated or entirely fictitious stories.

And Matthew Chapman’s response is spot-on. But, again, he need not be so specific. During the 2016 campaign and ever since, it has been impossible to get negative stories about Trump to have a proper impact for two reasons. The first is the one Chapman mentions, which is the media’s tendency to gravitate toward balance or both-siderism, in which one large sin by Trump or the Republicans is offset by a smaller sin by Hillary Clinton or the Democrats. The larger reason, which is implied rather than stated outright, is that the media does not and probably cannot stick with a story for any sustained period of time. One scandal or outrage is always followed immediately by another that cannot be responsibly ignored. The only story that has had any staying power at all is the Russia investigation. Everything else comes and goes like a heat wave or a cold front.

I’ve talked about this in various ways before, but traditional media organizations, which pride themselves on their officially nonpartisan desire to be objective referees of our politics, are never going to be comfortable with taking a moral stand against one party or president. That violates their standards and their understanding of their proper role. Even when they come under sustained attack from the president and his party, they will only move so far to take a stand. It could be that their model just can’t work in the Era of Trump, and they wind up doing a poor job of educating their readers and of defending themselves at the same time.

The traditional media also has no clear way to give each story the weight it deserves when faced with a never-ending supply of new stories that need to be covered. They will still obsess over stories, sometimes giving them too much weight, but in a 24/7 news environment with a president that never stops transgressing, they are constantly forced to drop something in order to cover something new.

When you add in the fact that traditional media has less influence than ever before, it’s hard to see how these organizations could succeed if you define success as educating the public about what is true and what is not, and what matters a lot and what matters only a little.

Trump succeeds by undermining faith in the credibility of good reporters and by making sure no one scandal can remain the focus of the public for very long. It’s a formula that works, especially when he gets assistance from right-wing media, troll farms pushing fake news and sophisticated and targeted social media advertising.

In light of this, it really is a rather glaring own goal by the media to be scolding the left for their lack of civility. That’s genuinely a microcosm of why Trump won, and also why his support has not completely collapsed.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.