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How Media Missed The Biggest Political Upheaval In Generations

02/06/2017 11:16 EST | Updated 02/06/2017 11:16 EST

By Geoff Norquay

In the wake of Donald Trump's election as president, the mainstream U.S. media are engaged in a frantic self-analysis. Journalists are asking how they could have so totally misjudged the outcome of the horserace, whether they created Trump in the first place and if they gave him too much unfiltered airtime.

donald trump media cameras

U.S. President Donald Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, speaks to the media in Nashville, Tennessee Aug. 29, 2015. (Photo: Harrison McClary/Reuters)

When one looks at the specific elements that created Trump's victory, it's clear that the mainstream media's "epic fail" missed several key pieces of the emerging story.

So, how did Trump win, and what did the media miss in his path to victory?

  • He won as the agent of change, even though he was a poster child for privilege, by running against the oligarchs of American society -- the Democrats and his own GOP, Congress, big business, offshoring multi-national companies and Hollywood;
  • He won by exploiting the resentments and fears of those whose jobs had been displaced by technology, globalization and environmentalism, notwithstanding his stated target was trade;
  • He won by appealing to the alienated, the angry and the disaffected -- many of whom felt patronized and disparaged by the affluent, the educated and the journalistic elites -- for their "ignorant" beliefs, attitudes and prejudices;
  • And he won by running against the media, by making them a part of the establishment he was seeking to overthrow, and by generating so much earned media that it became impossible for them not to cover him.

The mainstream media were unprepared for much of this because the language and images Trump used to deliver his messages broke all the rules of traditional political communication -- that set of widely accepted norms and cues that enable public discussion and establish the boundaries of political speech.

Trump blew all of this up. He personally insulted and belittled people by name, told huge and demonstrable lies about public policy issues, incited hate against identifiable racial groups, engaged in late-night Twitter rants against women and claimed that Hillary Clinton had "invented ISIS."

The mainstream media's first big mistake was to underestimate Trump. Because of his personal attacks and outlandish claims, many in the media seemed to consider him a target made in heaven: "Americans could never elect such an individual," they might have thought, and of course, "they didn't know anyone who was planning to vote for Trump."

The media also forgot that they, themselves, had served up Donald Trump in the first place. As purveyors of celebrity for its own sake, their years of breathless coverage had made him a reality TV star, embellished him during his "birther" phase, and ultimately launched him as a national political figure.

The mainstream media were also blind to the disaffection and anger of the people that supported both Trump and Bernie Sanders -- the people who believed that free trade had cost them their jobs, that immigration threatened the national fabric and American security, and that the one per cent (aided and abetted by Washington) were scamming the system and stealing from the middle class.

Media owners recognized Trump had become a "yuge" ratings and income cash cow.

These people and their concerns were not on the media's agenda because they lived in "flyover country," the terra incognita between the media centres of the east coast, Chicago and the west coast, the places where national journalists rarely ventured.

As Trump's celebrity transferred to the political realm, media owners recognized Trump had become a "yuge" ratings and income cash cow. To quote CBS Chairman Les Moonves in March 2016 on Trump's candidacy, "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS. The money's rolling in and this is fun."

Trump's ability to make news and Moonves' preoccupation with the bottom line drove coverage. A September 2016 Data Face analysis of campaign print coverage found Trump's name mentioned in a total of 14,924 article headlines during the previous year, with Clinton mentioned less than half that amount.

donald trump campaign rally cameras

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures to the cameras while greeting supporters at a campaign rally in Worcester, Mass. Nov.18, 2015. (Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters)

There was also the question of media bias. As James Poniewozik, the New York Times' chief TV critic admitted on Nov. 8, 2016, "The press covered Hillary Clinton like the next president of the United States. The press covered Donald Trump like a future trivia question."

There was also more than enough evidence to support Trump's media bias allegation. On election night as Trump support flooded in, who can forget CNN's Wolf Blitzer virtually shouting at John King to return again and again to the detailed results in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to "find a path to victory for Hillary Clinton"?

The final element in the mainstream media's epic fail was their inability to recognize the difference between earned and paid media, and to understand why the Trump and Clinton campaigns diverged in their media strategies.

They missed the biggest political upheaval in several generations.

The greenest of political operatives knows that earned media -- getting coverage by actually making news, is always better than paid media -- getting coverage by buying advertising. Trump had understood this for years. As early as 2012, he tweeted, "I love Twitter... It's like owning your own newspaper -- without the losses." Not surprising then that he told Bloomberg in 2016 he didn't need to raise a billion dollars to campaign because he was getting so much television and reaching 20 million people via social media.

While Clinton spent heavily on TV ads in the final month ($108 million), Trump spent a paltry $4.8 million. With his social media presence and his earned media, he simply didn't need paid advertising. One estimate suggests that by the end of the campaign, Trump had generated the equivalent of $5 billion in free media coverage.

Time after time in the 2016 campaign, the mainstream U.S. media underestimated Donald Trump. They dismissed his approach, deplored his tactics, could not understand his narrative and were confounded by his base of support. As a result, they missed the biggest political upheaval in several generations.

The U.S. media's autopsy on its performance last year will continue, and they have some big questions to consider:

  • Is the basic model of media "speaking at" readers, viewers and listeners still relevant when social media have democratized the making and dissemination of news, opinion and commentary?
  • How does journalism continue to fulfill its civic and democratic roles when so many people are predisposed against it?
  • When they do not believe provable facts?
  • And when they can choose to consume alternate sources of information unconstrained by normal journalistic conventions?

As the White House ramps up its attacks on journalistic bias, the media are not making it easier for themselves with breathless headlines about Trump firing all U.S. ambassadors to other countries, as well as the top four public servants at the Department of State.


Any first-year political science student knows that in the American system, these are all political appointees, that they serve at the pleasure of the president, and that they all submitted their resignations either before or after the November election. Those stories were bereft of context, and the media outrage that accompanied them was either manufactured or borne of ignorance. Trump's people were right to call them on it.

The way forward is not clear. What is, though, is that America needs a functioning, ethical and credible media.

The media are not alone in adjusting to new realities. Trump pointedly reminded GOP congressional leaders in his inaugural address that he won the presidency at least partly by running successfully against them. Company CEOs and boards of directors are now adjusting to the realization that the president can and will knock a billion dollars off their share value with an angry Tweet, or tell them where and how they can or cannot do business.

For the U.S. media and for others, the next four years are going to be a different kind of ride.

Geoff Norquay is a former speech writer and policy adviser to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Director of Communications to Leader of the Opposition Stephen Harper. He is a Principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group.

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