Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday 19 October 2016

News, entertainment and Trump

There seem to be two types of media outlets in both the UK and US. There are those who push a clear right wing political agenda to those who would rather read about celebrities or sport: the Daily Mail or Sun in the UK and Fox News in the US. As President Obama said, if I watched Fox News even I wouldn’t vote for me. And then there is the non-partisan media. What values drive their coverage of political events?

I was thinking about this after reading a comprehensive account by Thomas Patterson of the media’s role in the rise of Donald Trump, based on research by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. The basic story is that the media gave Trump far more coverage than other candidates in the crucial pre-primary period. Furthermore, contrary to popular myth, this was not just the cable news channels, but also papers like the New York Times and Washington Post. The rise of Donald Trump owes a great deal to this bias in media coverage.

The other remarkable thing about this excess coverage, even among the established newspapers, is that it was favourable. The term ‘favourable’ needs decoding in this context. What seems to happen involves a two stage process. First, Trump simply gets attention by saying outrageous things. Once his poll ratings start to rise as a result of this publicity, he is talked about in a positive way because he is gaining popularity.

Journalists in the non-partisan media bend over backwards not to express personal views on policy or character. What they do instead is treat political contests as a horse race. It is all about who is up or down, who is rising and falling. On top of that views are expressed on why some candidates are doing better than others. Those who are winning generally require explanations in terms of positive virtues: hence the favourable treatment of Trump. Few journalists dare say that Trump is gaining popularity because a large section of the population is racist!

In other words, Trump played on conventional, non-partisan news values and won big time. He was great entertainment at first, and after that got him noticed he became the news because the additional news coverage helped increase his poll ratings. That news was favourable because his poll numbers were rising. In case you think this could only happen for someone on the right, according to this research the second part of the dynamic was even more true for Bernie Sanders. The candidate who really suffered was Clinton.

That the media should play such a large role in allowing someone like Donald Trump to get so close to the White House should be a big concern for those working in the media. The free press is supposed to help safeguard democracy from quasi-fascists, not make it easier for them to come to power! I wonder if part of the problem is that the non-partisan media is also mixing politics and entertainment. As talking about policy is not entertaining for most, particularly if it has to be done in a ‘balanced’ way, it is more attractive to the non-partisan media to treat politics like sport. I cannot help feeling that if in a real horse race it was shown that the commentary on the race had an influence on the outcome, something would be done to change that very quickly indeed.


  1. Agree on the idea of the need to report candidates or positions positively once they have a critical mass of following. As soon as it became clear that Brexit had mass support, the assumption that supporters simply *couldn't* have bad motives led to backwards reasoning in reporting that there must be good and valid reasons for the position in the non partisan media.

  2. Have you read, Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying Updated by Dylan Matthews @dylanmatt Oct 15, 2016, 9:50a?

    It was simultaneously recommended reading by both Krugman and Corey Robin.

    From the article,

    "There is absolutely no evidence that Trump’s supporters, either in the primary or the general election, are disproportionately poor or working class. Exit polling from the primaries found that Trump voters made about as much as Ted Cruz voters, and significantly more than supporters of either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Trump voters, FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver found, had a median household income of $72,000, a fair bit higher than the $62,000 median household income for non-Hispanic whites in America."

    "So what is driving Trump supporters? In the general election, the story is pretty simple: What’s driving support for Trump is that he is the Republican nominee, a little fewer than half of voters always vote for Republicans, and Trump is getting most of those voters. In the primary, though, the story was, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has explained at length, almost entirely about racial resentment. There’s a wide array of data to back this up."

    "So in comes Donald Trump, a candidate running on open white nationalism whose base is whites who — while not economically struggling compared with poor whites backing Hillary Clinton and doing way better economically than black or Latino people backing Clinton — definitely live in the “real America” which journalists feel a yearning to connect to and desperately don’t want to be out of touch with. Describing these people as motivated by racial resentment, per journalists’ deep-seated belief that racism is a major character defect, seems cruel and un-empathetic, even if it’s supported by extensive amounts of social scientific research and indeed by the statements of Trump’s supporters themselves."

    "What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail. But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race. Taking them seriously means, first and foremost, acknowledging that, and dealing with it honestly."

    1. Interfluidity links to an article that critiques the conclusions that have been drawn from that $72,000 figure. I believe the upshot was that the incomes of people who vote in primaries are overall significantly higher than the overall median and average, and that the incomes of Trump primary voters actually were significantly lower than those who voted for other candidates.

  3. In a democracy a majority of voters have an inalienable right to be wrong. But the beauty of democracy is that, on reflection, at a later date they can change their minds. So, in the increasingly unlikely event that Donald Trump wins the US Presidency, the US and the rest of the world will have to endure it for a minimum of four years. (The situation re Brexit is very different where an unusual instrument with a measure of democratic validity (a popular referendum) was used to bypass the normal democratic processes of representative parliamentary democracy. There is a clear conflict between the previously settled views of an overwhelming majority in parliament and the outcome of the referendum, but this majority has waived its inalienable right to assert the supremacy of parliament in this instance. As a result, the outcome of the referendum has become binding rather than advisory.)

    Rather than lamenting perceived failings of the media it might be more appropriate to consider the role of so many economists and those applying economics to faciliate and excuse the abuse of market power and blatant rent-seeking by those who exercise political and economic power and influence. It is the impacts of these abuses of market power and rent-seeking that have driven so many voters in the US to support Trump - and to support Brexit in Britain.

  4. You've left off one segment of the media - there are actually three types.

    The third is the corollary of "those who push a clear right wing political agenda to those who would rather read about celebrities or sport"; specifically, it is the media that push left wing political agenda to those who would rather read about celebrities or sport. This group includes the likes of the Daily Mirror, Buzzfeed, and the Huffington Post. It is seriously misleading to ignore that this segment of the media exists.

  5. I suggest you read this, Simon:

  6. There isn't a non-partisan media in the UK.

  7. In the old days, there were laws to prevent newspapers from being owned by large corporations that owned other media outlets. These laws were gotten rid of. The result is that the NY Times and the Washington Post are pale shadows of their former selves, as is the news on TV. It is possible to make laws to make politics better (make news outlets independent, restrict campaign contributions and spending, prevent gerrymandering), but this requires that when the good guys win, they have to realize what is best for them in the long run. I believe it was actually the Democrats who a couple of decades ago foolishly reduced limits on campaign contributions thinking it would benefit them. And, who knows what the Democrats were thinking when Obama was first elected and the Senate failed to repeal the filibuster.

  8. Now of course if I was a typically paranoid mainstream Republicans, I would take all this as evidence of the well known "liberal bias" in the mainstream press. They puffed up an unelectable candidate in order to sabotage the party's chances ...

  9. I've heard it said that "Sun" readers are interested in people, "Mail" readers are interested in events, and "Times" readers are interested in ideas.

    Matt Taibbi's "Rolling Stone" article has some robust and interesting things to say on the relationship between "Fox News" and Donald Trump:

  10. I too was caught up short by the expression "non-partisan media." I assume you were referring to the inertia-driven media that accepts that opinions on the shape of the earth differ. The one you're always (quite properly) criticizing.

  11. The media are trying to stay in business, which means attract eyeballs. Trump believes there's no such thing as bad publicity. The current highly competitive state of meda (5,000 channels and clickbait sites) incentivizes those who attract as much attention as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to behave as horribly as possible.

    This winning strategy breaks down only when you need 51% of the vote - at that point there may be such a thing as bad publicity.

    It's a product of the nature of the business, not anyone's ideology. Also of Section 320 of the Communication Decency Act, which makes social media (mostly based in the US) not liable for threats, defamation, etc. in the way print or broadcast media is.

    Oh, and people watch Fox News Channel for only one reason - they like consuming far-right ideology.

  12. Nice piece. I just wish you would drop the overuse of exclamation points. A good point or turn of phrase is diminished by !.


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