I hadn’t intended for my words to be prophetic. They were meant as a warning.
In my June 1, 2016, column, “Note to media: Stop sleeping with Trump,” I urged the national media “to stop repeating Trump’s pejorative nicknames for his opponents.
“During the first seven minutes of one national morning broadcast . . . I counted Trump repeating those nicknames 10 times,” I wrote. “The broadcast was recycled eight times over four hours. That means the pejoratives were repeated at least 80 times in a single morning on a single network. And that’s a conservative estimate, given that I only watched seven minutes. With coverage like that, you might as well hand Trump the keys to the White House now.”
Trump, of course, won.
The national media were not entirely to blame for Trump’s ascendancy. The Democratic Party split at its national convention in Philadelphia three years ago this month. Bernie Sanders supporters were out in force, after the former independent socialist from Vermont was slow to offer a full-throated endorsement of the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. The party never really recovered after that.
There was the likability factor as well. Many Democrats were turned off by the notion of voting for a second Clinton, given President Bill Clinton’s scandal-laden past, so they stayed home. Many millennials, a core constituency for Barack Obama, didn’t vote. Ditto for many independents.
And then there was the Russia factor. There was lots of meddling there, we now know with certainty following the Mueller Report.
All of that aside, the national media, to my mind, did an especially poor job of reporting on Trump in 2016. Many outlets simply had no idea how to cover him in the Republican presidential primary or the general election.
Did the media ultimately sway the election? Perhaps. It was decided by such a razor-thin margin, who knows what the final factor was that put Trump over the top?
The media must decide on a clear set of ground rules for covering Trump. If outlets continue to cover him as they did in 2016, he could very well win the White House again.
Here’s what I wrote less than a half a year before the 2016 election:
“Trump is a train crash, a tornado and a typhoon all rolled into one, a one-man wrecking machine, a destructive force beyond compare. Metaphorically speaking, he’s spilled a lot of blood over the last year –– and in the media, if it bleeds, it leads.
“To the media, particularly the national broadcast media, I say, cut it out. Stop acting as his unwitting shills, publicizing his hateful agenda. Here are my suggestions for covering Trump in day-to-day, objective reporting, which I distinguish from commentary (like this column):
“1. Stop referring to him as Mr. Trump. Reporters refer to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Trump’s former GOP rivals by their last names only. Trump supporters add the honorific when referring to him, according him a higher degree of respect than he deserves. The media need not do the same.
“2. Stop interviewing him in his penthouse, office, a hotel or a mansion. Speak to him in the same places that you do the other candidates. I was struck by CNN’s pre-Indiana primary coverage, when Trump was shown more than once in his posh environs, while Ted Cruz was interviewed by a muddy river on a dreary, gray day. If Trump won’t agree to your interview otherwise, don’t interview him. You shouldn’t pander away editorial control for the sake of cheap ratings. This isn’t reality TV, staged to attract maximal viewership. This is the news.
“3. Stop repeating Trump’s pejorative nicknames for his opponents, none of which I’ll mention here. The media need not join in his steady chorus of middle-school bullying.
“Trump is a marketer par excellence, a master brander — not only of himself, but also of his rivals. He repeats simple-minded insults again and again, until they stick in people’s heads. He’s exceptionally good at selling snake oil. The media shouldn’t aid his campaign by repeating his awful nicknames. They have hours and hours of his seemingly endless droning from which to choose sound bites.
“4. Don’t repeat his cute little campaign slogans. When speaking with his supporters (which, of course, you should), don’t ask, ‘So, why have you jumped aboard the Trump train?’ Simply ask them why they support him.”
I was taken aback by the national broadcast media’s recent coverage of Trump’s Twitter screed against the so-called “Squad” — U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York; Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota; Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts; and Rhasida Tlaib, of Michigan. Again, no need to regurgitate his insults.
Many outlets labeled his tweets racist, without attributing the claim to a source. That is, the media decided the tweets rose to the level of racism. Hours were then spent debating whether Trump is, in fact, a racist. Lost in the verbal melee were the issues. (Are there even any issues to speak of at this point?)
That, I thought, was precisely how Trump planned it.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.