Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How The Media Failed In Covering Donald Trump

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump frequently held up newspapers while on the campaign trail.
Boston Globe via Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump frequently held up newspapers while on the campaign trail.

So here we are. Noisily embraced by the plurality of Republican voters, not-so-quietly reviled by most Republican leaders, Donald Trump is all but assured that party's presidential nomination.

Journalists astonished at the result — and believe me, most are stunned by what has unfolded — find themselves confronted by some form of this question: Are the media to blame for Donald Trump?

Or, as Politico media critic Jack Shafer put it: Did the media create Trump? His answer: a resounding no. Actually, Shafer liked it so much he wrote it twice.

Capital New York co-founder and co-editor Tom McGeveran tweeted early Wednesday morning that "there are significant factual hills to climb for those who believe the news media created the Trump candidacy. But, nevermind!"

Gawker went a step further, with a post titled, "The Idea that the media is to blame for Trump is a lie."

I think they're answering the wrong question.

Donald Trump is patently a self-creation. That holds for his record and reputation as real estate developer, celebrity tabloid fodder, best-selling author, relentless name-merchandiser, reality show star, birther-theory enthusiast and now presidential candidate.

Trump started with nearly 100 percent name recognition and little political capital, and outwitted, outlasted and outplayed 16 Republican rivals, some of whom seemingly arrived with significant political credibility and financial support.

Trump tapped into real voter anger and anxieties about the ways they believe political and financial elites are rigging the system (and sure, while we're at it, probably the media, too). It is his unmistakable voice booming through those boastful, bullying tweets sent to just shy of 8 million Twitter followers and counting.

So it's true: The media did not create Trump.

But that's hardly a defense of the press's performance. It's an overgenerous way of letting journalists off the hook without paying attention to what they actually did.

And that argument overlooks three key points:

1. The media largely missed the story when it came to Trump's appeal and rise.

The man has basically led in the polls for 10 straight months. Real Clear Politics' rolling average of national polls (I know, the primaries require a state-by-state battle, but bear with me here) shows Trump ahead since mid-July, with one fleeting exception of a statistical tie with Ben Carson in November. And Trump generally led not by a hair but by an entire pompadour.

And yet for all of their obsession with horse-race coverage, much of the political press treated Trump's campaign as pure spectacle, which it undoubtedly was, instead of something that could also draw support from real voters. As readers and viewers, we heard much more about what political insiders were telling us the voters thought than about the voters themselves.

The Huffington Post, the left-leaning news website, infamously relegated Trump to its entertainment section. Eager to enjoy the flood of clicks, the site also cross-posted its stories about him in politics.

Some reporters out in the field sensed that Trump had a real base, but most bought into the concept of a "ceiling" — that he couldn't rise above some number plucked out of the ether. Journalists are supposed to be a skeptical lot. But it's easy to buy into the conventional wisdom shared by the professionals they are constantly consulting.

In March, The New York Times recognized the cognitive dissonance that held sway in its own newsroom when it posted a piece drawing upon the experiences of several campaign reporters, titled, "The Moment I Knew Trump Was Here to Stay." Note, not likely to win but to stay. The reporters' answers: November, January, January, September, September, February, December, August. On average, call it early to mid-November. And the Times reporters may have been among the earlier ones.

2. The media greatly enabled Trump, embracing the spectacle to give him vast swaths of real estate on air, online and in print.

This proved particularly true on television (especially cable). Trump offered the same appeal to television executives as a competitive playoff game — viewers did not know what would happen. Trump rhetorically attacked Mexicans and Muslims as groups, specific female antagonists, black protesters, the other Republican candidates, Sen. John McCain for being shot down and taken prisoner as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War, and journalists (including a vicious impression of a New York Times reporter with a degenerative neurological condition).

Trump also whipped up such fervor that we didn't know what attendees would do. Some people who had come to cheer Trump ended up physically abusing protesters. Journalists say they've never encountered such hostility in person or online.

Such blanket coverage sent television news ratings soaring. Several cable news hosts told me they felt they had lost control of their programs as executives demanded live feeds of Trump to continue to fuel increased audiences.

And the interviews! Frequently fond, often sycophantic, anchors seemed somewhat giddy to interview Trump. He talked over questioners, talked past them, talked through them. On the rare occasion, one might drill down and catch him off guard. But Trump had shown at the very first debate, angered by the questions from Fox News' Megyn Kelly, that he could punish individual reporters and entire networks by withholding his presence from their shows.

Kelly held her ground, but even so, she met privately with him at Trump Tower to secure his presence for her prime-time special later this month on the Fox broadcast network. Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes has hand-held Trump as much as any of his own stars.

Those favored by the great man were graced with sit-downs on camera. Others had to settle for Trump's calls, always the least desirable option. Producers contorted themselves to accommodate him, accepting not just phone interviews but cellphone interviews. That held even for programs with major audiences such as NBC's Today show and ABC's This Week.

At one point, BuzzFeed counted 69 televised phone interviews with Trump in 69 days. Media analysts of all stripes and ideologies assessed the coverage not just as disproportionate but wildly so. Even negative stories or controversies involving Trump pushed his rivals from news coverage.

"It may not be good for America, but it's good for CBS," said CBS Chairman Les Moonves, ensuring he would be quoted by media critics for years to come.

CBS had much less to apologize for than most, perhaps because it does not have news shows around the clock. (CBS' digital news channel, CBSN, does not yet compete for guests at the same level as its cable peers.) The executive producer of CBS This Morning finally drew a line in early March, canceling an interview with Trump by phone. (NBC's Chuck Todd would follow suit.)

NPR, it might be noted, comes off better than the television networks by doing a better balance of stories on various candidates and their records. The network also did not routinely run live broadcasts of his rallies or interview him ad nauseam. That said, unlike most of his rivals, Trump never gave an interview to NPR as a candidate — an interview NPR undoubtedly would have wanted to land.

Instead of endearing himself to Fox News, Trump engaged in a complicated love-hate relationship, though the cable network has been for two decades the favorite proving grounds of Republican candidates. He set up shop with phone calls to MSNBC's Morning Joe so often that I thought he was arranging a corporate inversion to pay taxes there.

CNN rode the controversies, the rallies, interviews, debates and town halls to a rare prime-time ratings win this spring over Fox News. Some of its anchors, such as Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, tried to hold Trump to account, but the overall sense prevailed, at times, that he had taken over the channel. CNN President Jeff Zucker knew exactly what television talent he was getting: He had greenlighted deals with Trump while president of NBC Entertainment a decade ago.

Trump also found he could drive coverage without rallies and without interviews. A single tweet to his millions of online followers often sent the news cycle shuddering in a different direction. Obviously, journalists report on the events unfolding in front of them. In this instance, however, Trump's stagecraft overwhelmed news judgment.

It is as though major news organizations abdicated their ability to make decisions for themselves. As BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith pointed out this week, Trump has been able to claim repeatedly that he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq without challenge from such outlets as The New York Times, MSNBC, Fox News, the Washington Post and many others — despite hard proof otherwise.

You wonder why agile and polished pols such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush all ended up sputtering as they withdrew from the race? Part of the reason was their inability to control not just their fate but which issues the campaigns would hinge upon.

This battle was fought on the terrain of tone.

3. Most egregiously, the media did not subject Trump's record to the kind of scrutiny other major candidates should receive.

The very fact Trump had never held elective office or even formally run for one previously meant the political press did not have great muscle knowledge in how to approach him. But surely his business ventures, his entertainment career and his life in the gossip columns should have suggested something beyond a smirk.

Scores of lawsuits have been filed against Trump and his enterprises. His corporations have declared bankruptcy four times. His stated worth of $10 billion has been credibly challenged — for years. He has pressed the levers of power in city halls, state capitols and Washington, D.C., to gain financial advantage for decades. Surely these all deserve tough dissection.

Yet we knew far more, and far earlier, about more modest controversies involving the other candidates, such as Bush's financial ties to the Common Core curriculum. Or Rubio's personal finances. Look at those dates: January and June 2015. These stories deserve coverage. But so did Trump's activities, even if they required a form of reporting unfamiliar to the political press corps.

You can rightly point to some strong exceptions: For example, the Washington Post on Trump University last summer; Bloomberg in February on his international holdings. But these can't be one-and-done stories. Readers and viewers are being swamped with information and content — and occasionally real journalism — and such useful reports often sweep past us.

As an institution, the news media (much like government itself) are held in very low regard; one can reasonably argue that reporters won't be trusted no matter how vigorously they dissect Trump's record and life.

But that fact shouldn't allow the profession to abdicate its actual mission.

The press had an obligation to surround its unfiltered and sometimes fond treatment of Trump as a celebrity and controversialist with tough-minded scrutiny. That turned out to be the exception rather than the rule.

Some press defenders argue the media do not have the kind of influence that their critics would suggest they have.

"I only wish that CNN had that much power to be able to create a front-runner on either side," Zucker told the Guardian.

News organizations don't need to be powerful. They need to fulfill their jobs. That involves informing, enlightening, illuminating, stimulating and entertaining their audiences, usually while making a profit. It also involves equipping their consumers with the knowledge and context they need to act as citizens.

I'm not arguing the media should have acted as one to block Trump. I'm arguing the media largely failed, at least in the primary season, to rise to an anomalous figure who has scrambled ideologies and deeply degraded what constitutes acceptable public discourse.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.