Why Trump's conspiracy narrative on the media is dangerous
Posted October 24, 2016
Since the second presidential debate, Republican candidate Donald Trump has gone from a dead heat with Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to trailing her in public approval ratings.
Part of this is doubtless due to recent allegations against Trump of misogyny and sexual assault. First came the 2005 audio clip of Trump speaking lewdly about women before the debate. Then, after the debate, many women came forward to contradict Trump’s claims that his “locker room talk” was simply words and he’d never assaulted anyone.
Trump has denied the accusations against him, but since the debate and his slide in the polls, he’s also turned up the heat on his offensive against the news media, alleging that news outlets (along with fictional wide-scale voter fraud) are “rigging” the election in Clinton’s favor.
“The election is absolutely being rigged by the dishonest and distorted media pushing Crooked Hillary,” Trump tweeted recently.
While on the campaign trail, Trump has claimed the media is “poisoning the minds” of voters with false information, lumping an unfavorable "Saturday Night Live" impersonation of him as part of the conspiracy against him.
Political candidates touting media bias in a struggling campaign is nothing new. But Trump’s refrain of media “rigging” the election has taken on new menace, as The New York Times reported journalists being met with booing, jeers and threats of violence at Trump rallies.
And with Trump’s help, more people believe the media is somehow steering the election, which is dangerous, the Times’ Jim Rutenberg argued.
“It’s a pretty sweeping generalization. But a considerable percentage of the country believes it. An even larger percentage of Mr. Trump’s voters do,” Rutenberg wrote. “In effect, he is painting (reporters) as traitors.”
It’s true that much of the media coverage of Trump hasn’t always been fair or flattering, given that some media outlets like the Huffington Post flatly refused to cover his campaign seriously at all. Trump’s rhetoric that the news media is poisoning the public against him is certainly a problem for the news business because he, as a presidential candidate, offers a prominent voice to the dwindling number of Americans (about 32 percent, according to Gallup) who say they trust the news media.
But The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues that Trump’s conspiracy theory is balderdash not because media bias doesn’t exist, but because Trump skillfully confuses and confounds the media. Trump’s strategy, Friedersdorf says, is to make a questionable statement (such as President Barack Obama being the “founder of ISIS”), standing behind it as fact, and then lashing out at the media, whether their response is judgment or simply fact-checking.
“All this deliberate, mendacious gamesmanship puts journalists in a very tricky position,” Friedersdorf wrote. “The driver of flawed (Trump) coverage is … a candidate who deliberately uses inapt, misleading words to spread falsehoods, all with the express intention of generating outraged media attention.”
For the public, Trump’s claims that the media are not to be believed is also dangerous, as media watchdog group Media Matters vice president Angelo Carusone pointed out last year. Carusone used Trump’s generalization that illegal immigrants were disease-spreading drug dealers and rapists as an example.
“Fast-forward to … when immigration is back on the table and someone brings up the infectious disease myth — now we have to tackle this problem with that idea in our head,” Carusone said. “Once misinformation is injected into regular conversation, it just makes cutting to the main issue that much harder.”
More troubling still is that even if Trump loses the election, there are signs that his brand of hyperbole and media confusion will remain in the public spotlight long after Nov. 8.
Vanity Fair reported in June that Trump is looking to create his own media empire, after becoming “irked by his ability to create revenue for other media organizations without being able to take a cut himself.”
Trump has surrounded himself with media influencers who act as advisers, including former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and Breitbart News leader Stephen Bannon. Recently Financial Times reported that Trump’s son-in-law, New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner, has met with financial advisors about acquiring a cable channel for the venture.
While some, like The Atlantic, think Trump’s success as a media mogul is somewhat unlikely, The Times’ Rutenberg worried about the press’ future if it continues to ignore the power of Trump’s philosophy on the American public.
“American newsrooms will be making a big mistake — and missing a huge continuing story — if they fail to adjust their coverage to better illuminate the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters well beyond Election Day,” Rutenberg wrote.
Looking at it that way, it’s not far-fetched to think that Trump might not only be cultivating a groundswell of supporters with his campaign, but a loyal audience, ready to deepen their understanding of Trump’s often-erroneous claims, as they are now, on TV.