When the going gets tough, President Donald Trump distracts. This is the essence of his media strategy: give journalists the red meat of controversy and they won’t be able to resist the temptation. With the President’s will to say or do almost anything — such as tweeting out the video of a supporter yelling “White Power!” to protesters at the Villages retirement community in Florida — he’s confident that his Twitter feed and his blistering rallies might give him some wiggle room to survive in the fall.
The Trump presidency has been three-and-a-half years of pure outrage. Though political observers frequently discuss the importance of Fox News and Breitbart News to the success of this administration, the President’s real platform is the rest of the media.
His playbook draws directly on the legacy of Newt Gingrich, a former congressman from Georgia who entered the House of Representatives in 1979 and rose to the speakership in 1995 until before falling from power in 1998. Long before he was speaker of the house, Gingrich understood that sensationalism and provocative language played well in front of the cameras. In an era when the number of news outlets was expanding as a result of cable television, Gingrich understood that politicians could influence the national conversation by providing fodder to journalists who sought dramatic stories.
Gingrich spent a good deal of his time offering sizzle as a way to get his message out. He delivered short speeches on C-SPAN in 1984 blasting Democrats for being weak on defense and asking them to respond. Since viewers couldn’t see that the chamber was empty at the end of the day, it looked as if his “silent” political opponents were guilty. When the incident blew up after House Speaker Tip O’Neill had the person controlling the cameras pan the empty chamber to reveal the trick, Gingrich was delighted because the country’s largest networks — CBS, NBC and ABC — and major papers covered the story — and him.
“The number one fact about the news media,” he said, was their love of confrontation. “When you give them confrontations, you get attention.” In 1990, Gingrich’s organization GOPAC distributed a memo that taught Republicans how to “speak like Newt” — emphasizing the need to describe their opponents as “sick,” “traitors” and “radicals.”
Like Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Gingrich also understood that the press would report on allegations, the accusations would stick, and rebuttals wouldn’t get as much attention. This was especially true as the accelerating speed of the news cycle greatly increased with the spread of cable television in the 1980s. Gingrich learned that the press would investigate something because he pronounced it to be true and this was enough to cause the damage he sought. Unlike McCarthy, who was pushed aside in 1954, Republicans made Gingrich their leader (House minority whip in 1989 and speaker in 1995).
With all the talk about the importance of conservative media outlets, President Trump’s 2016 strategy rested on these principles. He capitalized on his ability to garner constant attention from powerful media organizations — which ended up providing him the amount of free airtime that most candidates only dream of — and distracting reporters to focus on stories that were of interest to him. He was always throwing a new shiny object for reporters to obsess about. During the contentious Republican primary, he had the media debating the nicknames he gave others and “pants on fire” (according to Politifact) accusations that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was associated with President John F. Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. And during the general election, he endlessly spoke about “Crooked Hillary” and her emails. His rallies provided a stream of consciousness with plenty of nonsense fodder for an entire news cycle.
Trump had the uncanny ability to take the hard work of legitimate shoe-leather journalists covering an unconventional campaign and manipulate their work to his advantage. Smart reporters were drawn into an excess of stories about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, ignoring the much bigger investigation taking place into Russian interference in the election. Even his endless attacks on the “fake media” were meant to goad the press into this conversation.
Just last week, Trump pulled this trick with his Fourth of July Mount Rushmore speech. At a moment where the surging rates of Covid-19 cases highlighted the failure of his administration’s policies on the biggest crisis of our time, he turned attention toward monuments and the “radical assault” on democracy that he says is taking place from the left. He even managed to shift a debate that has centered on Confederate monuments toward figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Reporters should certainly not be in the business of being pro or anti either party. Yet, they do need to convey information to the public in a way that doesn’t mask how extreme or unconventional are the actions of the President. Equally relevant, they need to avoid being manipulated by Trump so that he does not constantly push them into conversations that are beneficial to his political strategy.
In 2016, too much of the press was caught flat-footed. This time around, the nation can’t afford to make the same mistakes. The media should not allow themselves to be weaponized as one more tool in President Trump’s campaign.