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.