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Donald Trump and corporate media bias in America

REUTERS/Darren Hauck
What Trump understands is that presidential politics is more about narratives and marketing than it is anything else.

Prophecies of Donald Trump’s demise are like waiting for Godot. For months establishment media and political operatives have declared that his comments on McCain, women, Mexican immigrants, and now Muslims would do him in. They have not. Instead, they have done little more than fortify his status. So what is going on? There is no one answer, but understanding both the corporate biases of the media and the ability of Trump to bring traditional marketing strategies to politics are critical. They also explain why Bernie Sanders is stuck in the polls.

schultz portrait

David Schultz

In the media — ranging from the New York Times, Washington Post and the Economist to pundits on television such as FOX or NBC — Trump’s rise is attributed to many factors. Some link him to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and National Front President Marine Le Pen in France, seeing Trump as appealing to nativism and political and economic anxiety arising out of both the declining economic fortunes of white middle and lower middle America and the renewed fears of terrorism after the Paris attacks. Trump also benefits hugely from his name recognition and the mediocrity of his rivals, along with their lack of media sophistication. All of these are reasonable explanations. But Trump also is served well by his understanding of marketing and media bias.

Pick up the standard book on business marketing – Philip Kotler’s “Marketing Management.” He and others will tell how FUD – fear, uncertainty and dread – are the cornerstone of how to sell products. “Am I pretty enough? Does this car make me look like a jerk? What will my friends think? Am I attractive enough to women?”

Much of American consumerism appeals to ours fears, uncertainties, and dread. Anxiety sells — as does vanity, envy and worry. The seven deadly sins are better motivational tools than the four cardinal virtues. Trump knows that, and he also knows how to use the media to convey his message. He has done that for a career. The rest of the Republican field are hacks by comparison. In fact, most elected officials dread the news and media, fearing the only time reporters want to speak to them is to report on bad things.

He knows how to speak to cameras

Trump, as the Washington Post reported, is not unhinged, and his statements are not unplanned. He has tested-marketed them on Twitter and in speeches before going mainstream with them. What Trump understands is that presidential politics is more about narratives and marketing than it is anything else. He knows how to speak to the camera, turn a phrase, appeal to FUD. His success is simply in better understanding the media and marketing than others do.

He also understands how — at least in this early stage of the campaign — even bad media coverage is better than none. So much of the polling and success is simply about name recognition. It is about branding. Those who denounce him simply feed into his persona. Attack him and it supports his image of being an anti-establishment populist. He feeds on the same distrust of the media and government that Spiro Agnew spoke of when he railed against “effete intellectual snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.” 

But the other factor benefiting Trump is media bias. For years conservatives railed against a liberal media bias. If that were the case, Bernie Sanders would be leading Hillary Clinton and would be a household name. The media bias in America is not a liberal one but rather a corporate one. All of the major news networks are owned by larger for-profit corporations, which generally share a pro-business bias. Trump’s ideas get play because they both generate profits for the news industry (he is a good headline that sells soap) and because his political views do not challenge a basically pro-corporate business worldview. Unlike Sanders, Trump does not challenge economic inequality, corporate power, or even the legitimacy of capitalism. He does not rail against Wall Street and, contrary to his image, Trump is no friend of working-class America. Trump represents ratings success and safe coverage for the corporate media.

So is Clinton. She is a Wall Street Democrat. In a different era she would have been a Republican with the positions she has. She gets coverage for many of the same reasons as Trump – her name sells soap and she is not anti-establishment. Yet unlike Trump, Clinton is not a master of the media.

Why Sanders doesn’t get much coverage

Now imagine a different world. What if Sanders received as much coverage as Trump? The fact that he does not ought to be proof of a media bias against real liberals or those on the left. He is marginalized by the mainstream media despite the fact that his poll numbers within the Democratic Party are better than Trump’s in the GOP, and that there are more people identifying as Democrats than Republicans. In effect, more people nationally probably support Sanders than Trump. But Sanders is not media savvy and he offers a message that challenges the corporate media.

Overall, Godot may arrive and Trump may collapse. We re still six weeks from Iowa. There is no indication of a Trump ground game and his success seems all air wars and marketing. At some point he needs to show he can deliver the votes. But for now Trump will continue to thrive because of his better understanding of the media and marketing, and the advantage he enjoys from a corporate media.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and the author of “Election Law and Democratic Theory” (Ashgate, 2014) and “American Politics in the Age of Ignorance” (Macmillan, 2013). He blogs at Schultz’s Take, where a version of this piece first appeared. 

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/15/2015 - 08:30 am.

    Trump is a “stream of consciousness” campaigner whereas the previous gold standard was the ability to “stay on message”–pounding the same points over and over. Listen to the wandering cadence of his “speeches”.

    Too much coverage?

    Well, he is where tomorrows news will be, straight from his perception of the desires of his audience. And it quite likely be different than what he said last night.

    It does show how disconnected many have become from what is really incubating in the lesser known areas away from the NY, Washington and LA triangle. It is news to them what Trump is saying–but it’s not so much news as it is reinforcement for those in his audience.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/15/2015 - 08:56 am.

    Well said

    I’m inclined to agree with the professor. Trump and his campaign seem to be all about marketing: “Selling the sizzle,” since there’s not much steak to be seen or heard. It’s difficult not to notice how so many questions addressed to Trump about policy are answered by references to himself. Everyone who campaigns for the presidency has an overdeveloped ego, but Trump’s is from some other planet.

    Neal Rovick is not incorrect, but Schulz’s points are, I think, the more important ones. Trump has figured out how to play the corporate media to his huge advantage, and largely because he doesn’t challenge the corporate universe’s view of the world. That view, by the way, does not embrace democracy. CEOs of big corporations are accustomed to having their wishes fulfilled without argument or compromise. The executive suites in most Fortune 500 companies tend to operate in an authoritarian, even dictatorial, atmosphere.

    And Schultz is also correct, I think, in labeling the other candidates as amateurs when it comes to media manipulation. Trump has made a career of it while the others have not, and it shows.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/15/2015 - 09:15 am.

    Media shmedia

    I’ve never doubted for a minute that Trump could or would be the republican nominee, but he’ll never get into the White House.

    Frankly I find the surprise over his survival puzzling because Trump is basically the ideal embodiment of the modern republican party. We have elected republicans in office that are just as if not more bizarre. Why would you expect that a base of voters comprised of concentrated ignorance, fear, prejudice, would turn away from Trump in the first place? The only that could have hurt Trump was his lack of evangelical bonafides, but his bigotry has clearly overcome THAT handicap.

    And I hate to say but it’s not any of the alternatives are that much better.

  4. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/15/2015 - 09:31 am.

    More Than Just a Media Darling

    Trump’s success is not just that he’s excellent at appealing to FUD,…

    the GOP has been using this to appeal to its base since the days of Richard Nixon.

    What solidifies Trump’s support with that ‘conservative” base is that they see Trump is an OUTSIDER.

    The base has grown increasingly frustrated with the mainstream GOPs schtick of using FUD to draw them in,…

    then ignoring them and their concerns after each election.

    The mainstream GOP has made endless dog whistle (and sometimes quite explicit) election promises that it KNEW it could not keep,…

    and never really intended to keep.

    It’s taken a long time, but after two years of a solidly Republican Congress which has not accomplished anything of what the base was promised,…

    that “conservative” base is finally realizing the GOP will NEVER accomplish what they’ve been promising.

    By portraying himself as the “kind of man who gets things done,”….

    Trump has convinced the base that if HE’s elected all other considerations in Washington will fall away,…

    all political opposition will evaporate,…

    and the GOP’s base will finally get everything they’ve been promised for decades.

    I suspect that if Trump is not given the GOP nomination for president, the Republican base will stay home.

    If Trump IS the candidate, he will never gain much more support than he currently enjoys.

    But considering his belief in his own infallibility, I suspect Trump will, indeed, mount a third-party run if necessary.

    In any scenario I can imagine, Mr. Trump will be the end of the Raygun coalition,…

    between the upper crust GOP elite and the easily-manipulated “conservative” base,…

    who are likely NEVER going to get what they want, from any political party,…

    but have now come to realize that the corporate elite-controlled GOP has been playing them for rubes and fools for their entire lives.

  5. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/15/2015 - 10:58 am.

    Marketing 501

    Happy to read your reinforcement of prior posts.

  6. Submitted by jeff Hachlowski on 12/15/2015 - 05:24 pm.

    Media savvy Trump

    Schultz is right about Trump, but wrong about Sanders and the media. If Sanders followed Trump’s playbook, he’d get more coverage. That would mean attacking the 1% by name, and not just the Kochs. Even more important he’d also have to attack Clinton in a harsh and personal manner. The corporate media doesn’t care about a candidate’s politics as much as his/her ability to create drama thru conflict. “Reality” TV is the model.

  7. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/15/2015 - 06:54 pm.

    Sanders is a victim

    of the media’s preference for Mrs. Clinton to be the next president.

    They don’t want him screwing up the chosen one’s path to the White House that the media feels it owes Mrs. Clinton after choosing to go with the First Black President last time.

    They’re protecting her at every turn … burying stories that may hurt her (FBI investigating her private server, the tax fraud investigation of the Clinton Foundation, her husband’s close relationship with a known pedophile, her failed policies in the middle east being responsible for the rise of ISIS, etc.) You have to go to Fox News or other independent news sources to read or hear about those things.

    Nevertheless, the media has determined that to make up for 2008, this is her year to win it and Bernie Sanders is just another potential obstacle that stands in her way. Sanders can expect no support or barely a mention from her friends in the news media.

    Trump is getting all the media attention for the opposite reason. The media is convinced that the more the public sees him, the higher his negatives will go … which of course, helps Mrs. Clinton by weakening her potential opponent.

    The role of the media is to flood the airways with negative stories about the republican candidates, thereby weakening any challengers that may face Mrs. Clinton, and to aid Mrs. Clinton in her strategy to fly below the radar, avoiding gaffs or having to publicly answer embarrassing questions (“should your husband’s alleged rape victim be believed?”) that she has a chance, however remote, to encounter.

    Until she showed up in Mpls today, she’s been effectively MIA for the past several weeks if you go by what’s on the network news.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/16/2015 - 09:22 am.

      “Burying” Stories?

      If the media are “burying” negative stories about Ms. Clinton, how does it happen that everyone seems to know about them?

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 12/16/2015 - 12:33 pm.

      Unbiased?

      “responsible for the rise of ISIS”

      While I realize any news organization that isn’t FOX, or certified conservative (by the National Conservative Certification Board, whoever they are), you might want to take a look at PBS’s Frontline 2014 episode, “The Rise of ISIS,” in which “Frontline investigates the miscalculations and mistakes behind the brutal rise of ISIS.”

      According to them, it goes back a little further than Hillary Clinton. Something to do with the way in which the Big Conservative Brains in the G. Bush administration figured the best way to incubate and spread democracy in Iraq and the region would be to fire any Saddam Hussein-affiliated Baathists from the political, governmental or military positions they held, and replace them with people who had no experience or clear idea of how all those things work, but DID have a lot of clear and passion-fueled ideas about killing any Sunnis (and Baathists) they could find, and grinding any survivors into the dirt of political excommunication, unemployment, poverty, destitution, etc.. And, seeing as how their efforts were financed with billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and weapons, that part of their plan worked pretty well. . . Until it didn’t.

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/rise-of-isis/

      Related to that, you might find Frontline’s, “How Saddam’s Former Soldiers Are Fueling the Rise of ISIS,” report interesting too.

      “The current head of ISIS’s military council, for example, is believed to be Abu Ahmad al Alwani, an ex-member of Saddam Hussein’s army. So too was al Alwani’s predecessor. Another member of the military council, Abu Muhanad al Sweidawi, was once a lieutenant colonel in Hussein’s air defense intelligence, but by early 2014 was heading ISIS operations in western Syria.

      “Similarly, two deputies to the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, are former Baathists: Abu Muslim al Afari al Turkmani is believed to have been a senior special forces officer and a member of military intelligence in Hussein’s army. Today, as Baghdadi’s number two, he supervises ISIS operations in Iraq. The second deputy, Abu Ali al Anbari oversees operations in Syria. Both men are also thought to serve on the Islamic State’s main governing body, known as the Shura Council.

      “It’s this type of expertise and network of connections that has made former Baathists so valuable to the Islamic State… Case in point is the long-term planning and preparation seen in the Islamic State’s capture of Nineveh Province and its capital, Mosul, in June 2014: ‘This is not the work of neophyte enthusiasts inspired by their imagined rewards of martyrdom; it is clearly the result of detailed planning by people who know Iraq well, have prior experience and training, and are able to manage an organization with discipline and secrecy; all characteristics of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist supporters.’ ”

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/how-saddams-former-soldiers-are-fueling-the-rise-of-isis/

      As for this “allegedly” valid hypothetical question you pose — “should your husband’s alleged rape victim be believed?” — your casual (and public) accusation of “rape” ought to make you question how unbiased whatever news sources you tap into actually are. Assuming you got that from a news source, and not just your own thoughts, that is.

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