Battleground Media 2016: The Trump Card

This story is the second in a three-part series, Battleground Media 2016. This series covers the Presidential candidates’ relationships with the media. Part one in the series focused on Hillary Clinton and part three will look at Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. 

The Donald Trump campaign has ended its practice of blacklisting news outlets whose coverage they find disagreeable, according to a report by CNN. This is just the latest development in what has been the saga of Trump’s tumultuous relationship with the press.

Billions in free advertising and press coverage – AKA “free media” – and ongoing feuds with journalists have made Trump’s presidential campaign a media spectacle. Consistently barring reporters from events and blacklisting whole media outlets, Trump’s campaign has been far from conventional in the way it approaches media relations.

A blockbuster report in March revealed that Trump had received $2 billion in free media from the launch of the campaign through February 2016, a number long since eclipsed. The former reality television host has proven adept at garnering—for better or worse—press coverage of his every waking moment.

He has publicly feuded with journalists ranging from Fox’s Megyn Kelly to Univision’s Jorge Ramos to the entire teams covering his campaign for the Washington Post and Daily Beast. And on a recent, spontaneous trip to Mexico, he left his traveling press behind, citing safety concerns—something President’s visiting active war zones do not even do.

Personalities collide

In response to a question on CNN about restoring credentials to blacklisted news organizations, Donald Trump quipped, “I figure they can’t treat me any worse!”

Trump has, more than the other candidates – this cycle or in recent memory – clashed with journalists publicly, most notably Kelly and Ramos. Until recently, his campaign also refused to credential journalists from several major news organizations, including Politico, the Washington Post, the Daily Beast and the Huffington Post, among others.

“What is clear from his career up until now is that he doesn’t suffer criticism all that well. He lashes out at people, and he’s unafraid to push back on anyone who criticizes him—he dwells on it. When he feels under siege, he’ll push back,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of public communication at American University, in an interview with MediaFile.

Steinhorn, reflecting on Trump’s public feuding with the press, points out a common observation of Trump among political experts that talked with MediaFile. They see much of his media strategy as reactionary, often lashing out at journalists and news organizations that publish critical stories.

“He’s a maestro of free media. He loves when the Washington Post covers him in a way that he likes,” said Steinhorn, who is also a political analyst for CBS News. “He likes the attention; he likes to have the light on him all the time. He just doesn’t like the criticism.”

Free Media Strategy

Candidates are competing for news coverage—in the form of airtime, column inches, and social media attention—in a battle that could mean billions of dollars worth of earned media coverage.

From the start of the general election to August 23rd, Trump and his PACs have only spent 18.7 million on television ads compared to 113.9 million for Clinton and her PACs. That trend doesn’t seem likely to stop. A report looking at the campaigns’ reserved spending on TV and radio ads from September 8th through November 7th has found the total reserved spending for Clinton’s campaign and pro-Clinton PACs to exceed $123 million compared to just over $3 million for Trump’s campaign and pro-Trump PACs. Trump’s media strategy seems to count on him dominating the free media arena.

“He’s not a traditional politician. It’s not just the art of the deal; it’s the art of PR. He’s someone who understands how to dominate the news narrative. He understands the medium of television and reality TV,” said Steinhorn.

Trump, himself a former reality television host, knows how to capitalize on the contemporary media landscape far better than the average politician.

“His strategy, as it long has been, is to keep the camera on him. If you have that dominance it sends a message that he is the center of attention in the same way that Presidents are the center of attention, the way leaders are centers of attention. That becomes very favorable to him, even if it ends up creating controversial situations which turn people off. That is, to use a George Bush word, his ‘strategery,’” said Steinhorn.

A President Trump

What this all could mean should Trump be elected is of particular concern to the press corps. The White House Correspondents Association could potentially face greater push back for access and a diminished role within an Administration that has a particularly adversarial relationship with the press.

“Trump is capricious and unpredictable, and his relations with the media, should he become President, are likely to be a repeat of Nixon at his worst, suspicious of reporters, questioning their motivation, apt to place those he dislikes on his own ‘enemies list,’” said Marvin Kalb, former moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, in an interview with MediaFile.

Kalb’s bleak assessment is reflective of concern among journalists that Trump may carry over his campaign’s media habits into his potential tenure in the White House. Though, it may not be bad for every member of the media.

“Only a politically sympathetic cable news operation, such as FOX, will benefit from his incumbency,” said Kalb, who is the Edward R. Murrow Professor Emeritus at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the founding director of its Shorenstein Center.

“Being President isn’t going to rallies and rousing people up, but giving Oval Office speeches which potentially everyone in the world is paying attention too,” said Steinhorn. “It’s hard to say how that might play out [for Trump] because we just don’t know how much of his behavior is a posture to get elected and how much of it is the authentic Donald Trump.”

Ultimately, we won’t know what a President Trump—should he prove victorious on November 8th —would be like for the media until he takes his seat in the Oval Office.

“His whole public career has been about bringing attention to himself and provoking,” said Steinhorn. “It’s hard to say if he will continue with that as President, but if he does, it becomes fours or eight years of the Trump show. People are going to keep their eyes on the White House in a way they might not have before because they will not know what to expect from the President of the United States.”

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