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Can we stop blaming the media for Donald Trump? Nope. Not at all.

- September 16, 2015

Yesterday, my Post colleague Chris Cillizza asked, “Can we please stop blaming the media for Donald Trump?” His view is that we shouldn’t blame the media. This is diametrically opposite to my view of the media’s role in Trump’s surge and also that of Ben Carson.  Chris didn’t discuss the evidence I’ve mustered, and instead offered a different theory.

Naturally, I am going to agreeably, but completely, disagree.

Chris writes:

To believe that Donald Trump is a media creation born of a desire for ratings, you have to believe one other thing: that conservatives, who comprise much of Trump’s support base at the moment, take their marching orders from the media. Which, of course, they don’t.

And also:

The reality of Trump’s rise is far more complicated than simply blaming the ratings-driven media. Trump has tapped — whether intentionally or by accident — into a deep and powerful distrust and dislike (bordering on hate) that the Republican base feels toward politicians including (and maybe especially) those within their own party.

There may be something to this idea.  Earlier today, I showed that dissatisfaction with politics was correlated with support for Trump.

But that “deep and powerful distrust and dislike” simply isn’t enough.  The basic pattern of these polling surges in presidential primaries goes like this:

  • Step #1: Smith is a candidate for office and has some potential appeal, as yet largely unrealized, to some group of voters.
  • Step #2: Voters actually receive information about Smith. This can happen via political advertising or media coverage or some combination.  When it’s via media coverage, it is because Candidate Smith did something that is judged newsworthy by the standards of news outlets, which prioritize novelty, conflict, controversy and so on.
  • Step #3: Because of this information, voters begin to view Smith more favorably.  Smith rises in the polls. Smith’s polling surge is itself grist for further news coverage, because campaign news coverage emphasizes horserace metrics like poll numbers.  This helps sustain Smith’s surge.
  • Step #4: Potentially, Smith’s polling surge comes to an end because news outlets also scrutinize front-running candidates, and frequently uncover things that don’t reflect so favorably on those candidates.  Or it comes to an end because a new candidate does something newsworthy and we are back to Step #2. Again, potentially. It depends on whether one or both of these happen.

Steps #2-4 are “discovery, scrutiny and decline,” as Lynn Vavreck and I described it in “The Gamble,” our book on 2012. We are of course building on other research, notably Larry Bartels’s “Presidential Primaries.”

The point of “discovery, scrutiny and decline” isn’t that it happens to every candidate. It didn’t happen to Romney in 2012. Hillary Clinton didn’t need discovering this year, and pretty much went straight to scrutiny. And some candidates never get discovered at all. The point is that that process helps make sense of the candidate boomlets we often see in primary elections.

The main difference between Chris and me is this: Chris seems to think we can go straight from Step #1 to Step #3.  But you can’t go straight from simply existing in the world as a candidate for public office to the top of the polls with nothing happening in between. And what happens is Step #2.

Put it this way: No voter wakes up on the morning of June 16, 2015, rolls over to face their sleeping spouse, and says — apropos of absolutely nothing at all — “Honey, I’ve made a decision: Donald Trump should be the Republican nominee for president of the United States of America.”

But at least some voters were thinking exactly that by the evening of June 16, after massive coverage of Trump’s announcement that he was a candidate, with its controversial comments about rapists from Mexico and so on.

And many more voters are still thinking that after the massive coverage of Trump has now persisted for weeks and weeks, with no clear trend toward greater scrutiny and no other candidate entering Step #2 (except perhaps now Carson).

The basic pattern I’m describing here builds on a lot of seminal social science. In some ways, it dates to an 1948 paper by the eminent Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton. They describe how the media can “confer status” on individuals:

The mass media bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals and groups by legitimizing their status. Recognition by the press or radio or magazines or newsreels testifies that one has arrived, that one is important enough to have been singled out from the large anonymous masses, that one’s behavior and opinions are significant enough to require public notice.

The media does a similar thing with political issues via a process called agenda-setting. The more attention the media devotes to an issue, the more the public considers that issue to be significant.
There’s nothing necessarily sinister about any of this. News media coverage, especially in campaigns, can have the uniformity of “pack journalism,” but there’s no media cabal that meets in a room every morning to decide what we are going to read or see that day.

It’s just that most of us, most of the time, have to rely on the media for information about the world, information that helps us determine which issues — or candidates — are worth paying attention to.  What else are we going to do?  Most of us don’t have the opportunity to talk to the candidates ourselves. And it’s not like we’re going to conduct our own original research (“Honey, I’ve spent the day reading 12 newspapers and every candidate’s Web page. Here’s what I’ve found.”)

So we depend on the news media — even, by the way, when we say we don’t trust it.  We depend on media coverage, especially in a primary campaign, because we tend to know little about many of the candidates and can’t rely on our own party loyalties to make choices.
With that in mind, here’s the end of what Chris wrote:

If you are looking to “blame” someone (or someones) for the pole position Trump currently enjoys, you should look around you. Trump is resonating with the American public — or at least a portion of the American public — thanks to his ability to channel their fears, hopes and frustrations. The media didn’t create Trump, and the media won’t bring Trump down. Only Trump can determine what happens from here. Deal with it.

Trump does appear to be “resonating” with some Republican voters. And of course the media didn’t “create” him from whole cloth — which is, and now I’ll be a bit disagreeable, a straw man argument that has been used before by others defending the news media. (Nevertheless, I’d argue that media coverage had much to do with his fame prior to his campaign.)

But the question is: How did Trump come to resonate?  Because he’s run a bunch of ads?  Nope. He’s barely run any ads.

Because we all follow him on Twitter?  Nope. Given how few people are on Twitter, his supporters easily outnumber his Twitter followers, if we extrapolate from his poll numbers.

Because he has super powers that allow him to directly transmit his classiness to our frontal lobes?
Okay, I kid. But without ads or super powers, there has to be another means by which Trump comes to “resonate.”  In this case, it is because voters have had the opportunity to hear about him in the news media, and hear much more about him than the other Republican candidates.

That could change. I’d disagree with Chris again: The media could help bring Trump down.  They could do it via closer and constant scrutiny. Perhaps Trump will help them here if he stumbles (or is perceived to).  The media could also bring Trump down by “discovering” a different candidate.  As I wrote before, “the media giveth, and the media can taketh away.”

I guess my biggest frustration here is that, at times, some in the media seem to think that they have no agency in politics.  I don’t necessarily mean that Chris thinks that.  But this is an implication I’ve heard or perceived before from others.

The problem with this belief is that it imagines that politics just “happens,” and all the media do is report it and comment on it. And certainly that’s a fair description, at least sometimes.

But at other times, you can see reporters discussing the campaign “narrative” as if it came from angels who floated down to earth on gossamer wings, clutching a sacred scroll that, once unfurled, told us The Narrative.

In fact, the news media collectively write the narrative. In so doing, they make many, many choices about how much to cover events and candidates during a campaign, and how to cover them.

Those choices have consequences. They’ve certainly had consequences for Donald Trump.