Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Herald
Sunday October 23, 2016
I watched the third and final 2016 presidential debate with a heavy heart and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. This is my default position these days, during any extended exposure to Donald Trump. He was performing true to form – lying through his teeth with almost every word, while sniffing annoyingly because of an apparent deviated septum (not from using cocaine as former Vermont Governor Howard Dean implied a few weeks back.) How could this man possibly become the president of the United States? It is unimaginable - yet still not totally impossible.
The Russians have hacked the files of the Democratic National Committee, and of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta. So far this month, they have been dumping a thousand or so purloined documents every day. Some of the material has been embarrassing to Clinton but there have been no game-changers. But could it be that they are saving the best for last? Will WikiLeaks, the recipients of Putin’s cyber-espionage, produce a bomb-shell during the next two weeks?
As Trump now regularly says Clinton is a criminal and that if elected, he plans to prosecute and incarcerate her, one wonders just how this presidential campaign could become any worse. But it might.
Trump’s refusal to commit himself to accepting the results of the election - an inadvertent gift to Hillary during the last debate - is nevertheless very worrisome. It has to be seen in the context of his daily rants that the entire system is rigged against him and that if he should lose, it will be because of media conspiracies and major electoral fraud.
Trump has millions of supporters and he has spent the past year stoking their anger at the establishment and the system. So if Trump loses the election, which now seems more probable than not, at least some of these angry supporters will feel cheated and will not go quietly into the night. Trump has great influence with his supporters, and if he ultimately refuses to accept the election results, they won’t either.
How did the world’s oldest and most admired democracy get itself into such a mess? First: It didn’t just happen in one presidential campaign. Second: There is plenty of blame to go around. As the future of journalism matters to me greatly, I have some thoughts on the role of the mainstream media in the creation of Trump.
Let me begin with a report published in July by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. It is an analysis of news coverage of the 2016 presidential candidates in the year leading up to the primaries. It states, “This crucial period, labeled ‘the invisible primary’ by political scientists, is when candidates try to lay the groundwork for a winning campaign – with media exposure often playing a make or break role.”
After analyzing thousands of reports from most national print and broadcast news organizations, the Harvard report reached these conclusions:
“Major news outlets covered Donald Trump in a way that was unusual given his low initial polling numbers – a high volume of media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls. Trump’s coverage was positive in tone- he received far more ’good press’ than ‘bad press.’ The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of the Republican polls.”
There was a far different picture on the Democratic side. According to the Harvard study,”Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any of the candidates. In 11 of the 12 months, her ‘bad news’ outpaced her ‘good news’ by a wide margin.”
So much for Trump’s claims that the news media has been part of a conspiracy with the Clinton Campaign to rig the election in her favor. I concede that recently Trump has been getting more negative coverage, but the media’s role in Trump winning the Republican nomination, cannot be overstated.
While the Harvard report gave us the statistical analysis, it didn’t address the “why”. A recent piece by the Washington Post’s Media columnist Margaret Sullivan offered some fascinating perspectives on why Trump was the media darling for much of the presidential campaign. She begins with a tantalizing question.
“Looking for someone specific to hold responsible for the improbable rise of Donald Trump? Although there are many options, you could do worse than take a hard look at Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide. It was Zucker after all, who as the head of NBC Entertainment gave Trump his start in reality TV with ‘The Apprentice.’ The show was built as a virtually nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle, according to the book ‘Trump Revealed’ by Washington post journalists Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish. And it succeeded wildly- boosting the network’s ratings, as well as Zucker’s meteoric career. In turn, under Zucker, the show gave rise to ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ another Trump extravaganza. And in turn Zucker became head of NBC overall.”
Sullivam claims that there would be no Trump-the-politician without Trump-the-TV star. She then directly links the two with the rise of Zucker to become head of CNN Worldwide.
“Ten years later it was Zucker, now the head of CNN, who gave astonishing amounts of free exposure to the Republican presidential candidate on the cable network, continually blasting out his speeches and rallies – often unfiltered and without critical fact checking.”
Sullivan necessarily stresses that CNN was not alone. ”Fox News, too has been a megaphone for Trump And nearly every news outlet has played a part – from newspaper front pages to NPR to the network nightly news……Say what you will about Trump as a human being or a potential leader of the free world. He has an ineffable ability to get attention. He has called himself a ‘ratings machine’ and in the world of TV, ratings equal profit.”
As Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS said of the rise of Trump, according to the Hollywood Reporter. ”It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
I rest my case - for now.
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