At 11 AM on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump rode down the escalator inside Trump Tower to announce his presidential campaign. With paid actors cheering him on, Trump instantly lied about the size of the crowd as he kicked off a meandering, 45-minute hate speech that was carried live by all three national all-news TV channels. On the fourth anniversary of that event today, it’s disheartening to see how little the political press has learned since then. Faced with perhaps the most radical actor in the history of American politics, the Beltway press has refused to react in equally radical and aggressive ways.
Trump’s a street brawler who plays by no rules, while the press is still trying to box him as if in a Golden Gloves match with three-minute rounds, a rest period, and a referee to make sure both sides fight fair. Instead, Trump’s stalking the ring with a folding chair in his hand, and he’s already paid off the referee to stay away for the night. Put another way, the press keeps bringing a knife to Trump’s gunfights—over and over, to the point where obviously a calculation has been made by the Beltway press to not push too hard.
We saw that instantly as the Republican primary unfolded in 2015 and 2016, as Trump ripped up the old beloved Beltway playbook. Unconcerned with media fact-checkers who proved him wrong, and uninterested in running any sort of factual campaign, Trump invented his own model and dared journalists to alter their ways to adjust to the Trump fabrication revolution. The press faced a defining test: forcefully call out Trump’s lies, or burn through thesauruses to politely describe his behavior. Time and again, reporters and their editors, opting for clunky euphemisms, simply couldn’t summon the nerve to accurately label Trump’s lies for what they were.
The campaign press simultaneously showered Trump with nonstop attention, while making sure to give him a pass on policy. Trump’s announcement speech on June 16 was just the first of endless campaign addresses he gave that were carried live and in their entirety—while speeches made by Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were virtually ignored by cable news. “I think that taking candidate rallies unedited is actually a valuable service,” CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist explained when pressed about the Trump tsunami. “I think that taking those rallies live, unedited, without commentary is useful.” Useful for Trump, no doubt. During March 2016, the three network evening newscasts devoted 143 minutes to covering Trump. By contrast, Clinton and Sanders, competing at the height of the Democratic primary season, landed just 26 minutes that month. (NBC Nightly News covered Trump for 51 minutes that March, Clinton for 2 minutes.)
Meanwhile, walking away from a long-standing tradition of covering issues and presidential policies during campaign seasons, the network evening newscasts all but abandoned that type of reporting in 2016. ABC’s World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage, according to television news researcher Andrew Tyndall. Left out of the network evening news campaign coverage? Trade, health care, climate change, drugs, poverty, guns, infrastructure, and deficits, among others. During the Republican primary season alone, the networks spent 333 minutes focusing on Donald Trump, but set aside just one-tenth of that for issue-reporting for the general election. And guess who benefited from the media’s virtual policy blackout: the Democratic candidate whose campaign website posted 112,000 words detailing her agenda, or the Republican candidate whose campaign website posted just 9,000 words detailing his agenda?
Incredibly, according to one campaign study, Clinton received worse press coverage than Trump, despite the fact that Trump, during just one hour of televised debate time, lied about Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Clinton’s gun policy; her immigration policy; abortion; being endorsed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency; the economic effects of NAFTA; not having a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin; U.S. security officials having “no idea” whether Russia played a role in recent email hacks; job losses in Ohio under President Obama; Ford shipping “small car division” jobs to Mexico; the amount of financial support Trump enjoyed from his father over the years; whether he had previously called climate change a “hoax”; the rate of energy production in the United States; and why he wouldn’t release his tax returns.
Oh, but the press loved him. In terms of free media, Trump’s wall-to-wall coverage earned him $1.9 billion’s worth of free media in nine months of campaigning, according to a New York Times’ analysis,
The media’s campaign shortcomings were only magnified after Trump was sworn into office in 2017. Nervous about having their access cut off—about not being called on at briefings, about being shut out of gaggles, about having no chance at landing a presidential interview—many journalists and news organizations sat on their hands and hoped for the best, and received the worst. White House press briefings have virtually disappeared without a peep of collective protest from the major news outlets, while the White House recently moved to purge reporters by taking away or restricting their daily press passes to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It all constitutes a historic, incremental effort by the Trump administration to lock out the news media—and, by extension, the public—from the government’s official duties and business. All the while, Trump hammers journalists as “enemies of the people,” and news executives barely muster a response.
And then there’s Trump’s heavy-handed, government-sponsored propaganda, the kind that isn’t supposed to work in a vibrant democracy where openness flourishes. But Trump’s brand, consisting of flooding the zone with lies, contradictions, occasional walk-backs, and endless attacks, is clearly working, in part because the news media is too timid in calling out Trump’s endless deceits, giving him plenty of room to operate. So yes, authoritarian propaganda can succeed in this country, especially in tandem with the White House’s nonstop efforts to discredit the legitimate press.
Four years ago today, Trump came down that escalator, and lots of people dismissed him—including me. Since then, he’s bullied and beaten a weary press corps that still can’t find its bearings.