The Media, Inundated With Trump Coverage… Again

Trump officials reject claims about voter fraud 2:58

(WABNEWS) — Donald Trump has been out of the presidency for 17 months.

But these days it seems to be back in all the media, in all. And it’s not just the result of convincing audiences of the special commission investigating the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s role in it.

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Trump’s ubiquity was particularly obvious in coverage of Tuesday’s primary election. The prism through which most of the next day’s stories in the mainstream media were viewed was: how Trump’s endorsed candidates fared.

The front page of The Washington Post’s print edition on Wednesday carried the headline: “Over 100 GOP Primary Winners Endorsed ‘Big Lie’.” The caption: “Embracing Trump’s claims is part of the winning formula.” The news it also topped the newspaper’s home page for most of the day.

Television and mobile screens were filled Wednesday with banners such as: “Big primary wins for Trump-endorsed candidates” and “Trump candidates have mixed success during primaries in several key states.”

Using primary vote totals as an instant barometer of Trump’s influence — or lack thereof — makes sense on some levels, analysts say. But some also wonder if that’s the best kind of election coverage we can offer. Should that be the main focus of the reports? Is there a danger in framing coverage of the crucial midterm elections in Trump’s terms?

And the larger question: How is it that this failed 2020 candidate continues to dominate both the media landscape and the national political conversation at a time when American life is filled with so many challenges?

“The first thing about Trump being mentioned so much in the midterm is that it’s very unusual. We normally think of the midterm as a referendum on the current president,” said Robert C. Lieberman, a professor in Political Science from John Hopkins University and co-author of “Four Threats: The Recurring Crisis of American Democracy.”

Lieberman acknowledged that there is a “good chunk” of that coverage in terms of President Biden’s approval ratings and the “tough situation” the economy is in, “but having the former president hover so closely in the midterms period is unusual.

Furthermore, much of the coverage is what Lieberman disparagingly characterized as a “Trump support scorecard.”

Although there are valid reasons for intense coverage of Trump in the midterm elections, that scoring information may fail citizens at a time when more informed and in-depth journalism is needed, according to Regina G. Lawrence, associate dean of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications and author of “When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina.”

“There has been a pattern throughout this midterm of treating every Republican race as a referendum on Trump’s continued influence. That’s for good reason: He IS the most important figure, by far, in the Republican party,” Lawrence said.

But that “strong focus on Trump risks missing out on other important issues this election season,” he added. “On the one hand, you risk losing the promotion of any candidate who doesn’t fit into that simple binary scheme. I think voters across the country may be eager to learn more about the candidates and the races that revolve around them.” something other than Trump. So, in that sense, Trump’s omnipresence is … an unhelpful way to inform people about a really complex moment in American politics.”

Tobe Berkovitz, associate professor emeritus of advertising at Boston University and a 30-year veteran of advising on political campaigns, also believes that this time in American life calls for more than just focusing on Trump supporters.

“Most of the political coverage, and this is before the Donald Trump era, has been obsessed with personalities, obsessed with horse racing, obsessed with scandal instead of trying to inform the public about the issues,” Berkovitz said. “But right now, people are paying more than five dollars a gallon for gas, some families can’t find formula for their babies, there’s a war still going on in Ukraine, and inflation is out of control. One would expect that both politicians and the media focus more on this.

The other big reason Trump seems to be everywhere on our screens, of course, is the January 6 hearings.

Trump-focused audiences have done well in terms of coverage: 20 million viewers on opening night in prime time and 11 million or so in the first morning session.

There are multiple reasons for that success, beyond whether American viewers like or hate Trump enough to watch it. One of the reasons is the skillful production. The commission made a wise decision to hire James Goldston, former president of ABC News, as a consultant to help make the proceedings media-friendly without compromising their seriousness.

In tone and structure, they resemble a Netflix true crime documentary series, with previews of what’s going to happen in the next episode and a behind-the-scenes feel of a crime being plotted. In addition, there is another level of familiarity with the television formula, as Trump is being represented in the mold of the amoral and ruthless politician Francis Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey in the fictional “House of Cards”.

Televising hearings is a public service in the best sense of the word. We desperately need to try to document the danger Trump has posed and continues to pose to democracy. We need to unravel how the insurrection came about. But even while the commission is busy trying to do so, broadcasts can have the opposite effect of heightening their stature as a result of their omnipresence on our screens.

“As we have learned from experience, the mainstream media can end up amplifying anti-democratic messages even when they don’t mean to. Paying inordinate attention to Trump adds fuel to the right-wing news ecosystem that supports the broader Trump movement and its anti-democratic elements and white nationalists,” Lawrence said.

“That’s not to say that journalists shouldn’t cover Trump, but that they can find more comprehensive ways to talk about what’s at stake right now, which may be democracy itself,” Lawrence added.

Lieberman, who has written extensively on democracy, says Trump is important to the midterms, but not as important as a person trying to pick winners and losers. What matters is the ways in which the lie he promoted about a rigged election in 2020 is affecting today’s election, the story that The Washington Post was talking about in its Wednesday morning coverage.

“What is interesting is not so much Trump himself, but his stolen election message that is running through many of the campaigns … at the local and state level,” Lieberman said. “That’s what I find alarming.”

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