Trump’s War with the Media Reaches a New Level

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To say that Donald Trump has a rocky relationship with the media is a massive understatement.

For months, he’s barred certain reporters and media outlets from his rallies. He’s threatened to open up libel laws so that he could have an easier time suing news organizations he sees as dishonest. Emboldened by his fiery invectives against the media, his supporters regularly scream obscenities at journalists during his rallies, in one case even prompting the Secret Service to intervene to protect one reporter.

Trump’s conflict with the media continued Thursday, with the Republican presidential nominee threatening to sue The New York Times over a story in which two women accused him of inappropriate physical contact. The story was one of several that came out this week accusing Trump of making unwanted sexual advances.


FILE – Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spars with Univision reporter Jorge Ramos before his “Make America Great Again Rally” at the Grand River Center in Dubuque, Iowa, Aug. 25, 2015.

In a speech in Florida, Trump slammed the reports as a “concerted, coordinated and vicious” attack by the corporate media, which he said were controlled by his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“The corporate media in our country is no longer involved in journalism,” Trump said. “They’re a political special interest no different from any lobbyist or financial entity with a total political agenda.

“And their agenda is to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy. For them, it’s a war and for them, nothing at all is out of bounds,” he said.

Though Trump denies the allegations of sexual misconduct, that hasn’t kept them from receiving almost non-stop media coverage for much of the past week. That’s in part because the accusations came just days after Trump was seen in a leaked 2005 video bragging about his ability to get away with sexual assault.

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The groping allegations are far from the only Trump-related controversy to receive media attention recently.

In the past two-and-a-half weeks, news outlets have been filled with stories on Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, his public bickering with a former Miss Universe, possible violations of charity laws by his Trump Foundation, and his fallout with Republican Party lawmakers.

FILE - U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump answers questions from the media ahead of a campaign stop in Spencer, Iowa Dec. 5, 2015.

FILE – U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump answers questions from the media ahead of a campaign stop in Spencer, Iowa Dec. 5, 2015.

Viewed together, it constitutes a stunning barrage of negative news coverage aimed at a presidential candidate, just weeks before the November election.

Media bias?

There have been news cycles dominated by Clinton controversies. Most of that coverage has focused on Clinton’s use of a private email account, her alleged inaction during the deadly 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya, and inappropriate overlap between the Clinton Foundation and her former employers at the State Department.

But the coverage, at least on major news outlets, is seemingly unequal, and the disparity is making some media analysts uncomfortable, at least in particular instances.

“I think what’s happening is that some journalists and news organizations think Trump is such an unusual and threatening candidate that they feel they have the right to bend or alter their ethical obligations,” said John Watson, professor of journalism ethics at George Washington University.

In Watson’s view, it’s a mistake for journalists to view Trump as an existential threat to democracy, and therefore break the rules of even-handedness. But at the same time, he says Trump “warrants greater news coverage because what he says and does is very often more newsworthy.”

FILE - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the media on board her campaign plane as she travels to Tampa, Sept. 6, 2016.

FILE – Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks to members of the media on board her campaign plane as she travels to Tampa, Sept. 6, 2016.

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In other words, whereas it may seem that the media are biased in favor of Clinton, it only appears that way because she hasn’t “said or done as much horrible stuff as Donald Trump has,” according to Watson.

Robert Drechsel, the recently retired director of the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics, agrees that the negative coverage has much more to do with the unusual nature of Trump’s candidacy than any left-wing media conspiracy.

“Anyone who has been involved in media work would very quickly realize that that is not the way things work,” Drechsel said. “It’s something largely of his own making. It’s just that Donald Trump has done and said so many things that have invited so much scrutiny that they tend to dominate the news coverage.”

And dominating the news coverage is a strategy that Trump himself has embraced, at times explicitly.

Coverage benefits

In his 1987 book “Trump: The Art of the Deal,” Trump acknowledged that he sometimes behaves in an “outrageous” or “controversial” manner in order to attract media attention.

“From a pure business point of view, the benefits of being written about have far outweighed the drawbacks,” Trump says in the book.

That media strategy appears to have worked for Trump this election — up to a point.

During the primary election, Trump was largely seen as having benefited from the extra media attention, in part because his unorthodox stances appealed to his hardcore base of supporters and helped him stand out among his 16 Republican rivals.

But during the general election, when Trump has faced just one major opponent and has needed to appeal to a larger and more diverse voter base, the extra scrutiny appears to have hurt him.

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After the latest barrage of negative stories, Trump now finds himself down more than six points in a two-way race with Clinton, according to a polling average compiled by RealClearPolitics.

It could get worse; for instance, if more women come forward to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct or if, as rumored, additional tapes are released showing Trump making lewd comments.

If that happens, journalists will have the responsibility to report the facts, whether or not it is seen as fair, says Aly Colon, professor of media ethics at Washington and Lee University.

“The truth needs to be the priority in all these instances,” he said. “They need to hold both of these candidates accountable for what they say, what they’ve said, and what they propose. And then the candidates have to answer that and deal with that themselves.”


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