Not an ordinary election: News media rewrites playbook for ‘liar’ Trump
Five weeks from election day, the gloves are off between Donald Trump and the media, with American news outlets going so far as to call the Republican White House nominee a “liar” on their news pages.Updated: Oct 01, 2016 08:55 IST
Five weeks from election day, the gloves are off between Donald Trump and the media, with American news outlets going so far as to call the Republican White House nominee a “liar” on their news pages.
Trump is facing a new level of scrutiny in the domestic press, including investigations into his charitable foundation and his business dealings, and checks of his multiple distortions of facts.
The normally restrained New York Times recently decided to call out Trump on its news pages for “lies” after the billionaire blamed his opponent Hillary Clinton for starting the “birther” movement questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States.
“It was demonstrably and unequivocally false and he had to know it,” Times editor Dean Baquet said in a recent interview with his newspaper.
“To have not called it a lie would have been odd, it would have been false on our part.”
CNN broke with its editorial custom on the same occasion by plainly stating in an on-screen banner that Trump had “falsely” accused his Democratic rival.
While Trump has up to now appeared to have used the US media to his benefit -- accruing hundreds of hours of exposure to voters -- that may be changing, analysts say.
“The media have slowly come to understand this cannot be covered like a normal presidential campaign,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University.
“Trump has repeated falsehoods often enough that they clearly are lies. He is perpetrating falsehoods deliberately. We’ve never seen that before from a presidential candidate.”
The tougher media approach comes against a backdrop of unprecedented acrimony between Trump and segments of the news media, said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University in Washington.
The Manhattan billionaire has attacked members of the media personally, calling reporters “sleaze” and “scum”.
“Of course candidates have criticised the media before, but no candidate has ever savaged the media as Donald Trump has, making it a fundamental part of his message,” Lichtman told AFP.
Trump’s credibility with the media is so low that dozens of traditionally conservative outlets have either endorsed Clinton or called Trump “unfit” to be president.
The Dallas Morning News and Arizona Republic broke new ground by endorsing a Democrat. USA Today, the large national daily which has never before taken a position on a presidential race, called the Republican “a dangerous demagogue,” without endorsing Clinton.
The staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune meanwhile endorsed Libertarian Gary Johnson, and called Trump “not fit” to lead.
Trump has responded -- by stepping up his attacks on the media.
On Twitter, he sought to downplay recent investigative reports, saying, “don’t believe ‘sources said’ by the VERY dishonest media. If they don’t name the sources, the sources don’t exist.”
He then went after newspapers refusing to endorse him, tweeting, “the people are really smart in cancelling subscriptions to the Dallas & Arizona papers & now USA Today will lose readers!”
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Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth University political scientist, said Trump has forced the media to test its limits on objectivity.
Nyhan argues that to simply say the media is going up against Trump -- as his supporters routinely claim -- “plays into a liberal bias story” and fails to take into account the lack of scrutiny Trump has received so far.
“Trump has forced the media to reckon with the limits of ‘he said, she said’ coverage that bends over backwards to avoid any possible bias,” Nyhan said.
“The way Trump has been covered to this point doesn’t do justice to the repeated inaccurate claims he has made.”
Angelo Carusone, executive vice president of the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters for America, sees the greater scrutiny -- both of Trump’s statements and his track record -- as positive.
“What the media are doing now is good, but I would say it’s too little, too late,” he said.
“They showered him with uncritical coverage for over a year that allowed him to steamroll through the primary process.”
As the roller-coaster White House campaign barrels on, Trump appears to follow the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, Carusone argued.
“Even if some of his claims are outrageous, he is controlling the terms of the debate,” he said.
In a fragmented media environment, Trump has also managed to solidify his base by reaching voters directly through Twitter and conservative online media outlets, said Carusone.
His supporters, for example, were able to spread the message #TrumpWins after last week’s debate, making that a trending topic, even though scientific polls showed Clinton as clear victor.
“His ability to tell a counter-narrative has been jarring for members of the press corps,” Carusone said.
Lichtman noted however that Trump’s ability to circumvent the mainstream media -- while it helped for the Republican primaries -- won’t help him in a tight general election.
“He is stuck in the low 40s and he has to go beyond his core supporters to win,” Lichtman said. “He can’t do that through alternative media.”
First Published: Oct 01, 2016 08:49 IST