Did the media create Trump?


Prof Gianpietro Mazzoleni

Professor of Political Communication at University of Milan (Italy). He has research interests in the intersection of media and politics. His most recent publication (as editor-in-chief) is The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication (Wiley, 2016), and he is the president of the Italian Association of Political Communication.


US2016 - Section 1

Section 1: Media

“Trump’s victory is no surprise. He was never a joke. Treating him as one only strengthened him. He is both a creature and a creation of the media and the media will never own that”, claimed filmmaker Michael Moore in his Facebook post, minutes after Trump had won the presidential race. Indeed, one of the most recurring questions before and after Trump’s election was whether the media were to be blamed for his sweeping successes during the long campaign and, especially, for the shocking finale. The debate engaged mostly the liberal media outlets, where influential pundits, academics, and bloggers tried to come to grips with the widely shared feeling that the media’s coverage of Trump was actually drawing him more popular support. 

Donald Trump, to be true, helped the media to help him. The candidate was a celebrity on his own, a flamboyant tycoon, a controversial outsider in the GOP camp. He crisscrossed the country rallying crowds with intemperate speeches against blacks, muslims, Mexicans; raised hell worldwide with outrageous comments on females, tweeted insults to politicians and stars, he was a newsmaker and an agenda-setter all the way through. How could the media ignore such a bizarre presidential hopeful? That’s the point. They just couldn’t! So, they covered his triumphant march toward the nomination, using the horse race frame, the one that they are long accustomed to. The coverage willy-nilly ended up in boosting Trump’s public image, in donating him billions worth of free publicity and, more importantly, in legitimizing his standing as presidential frontrunner, months before the Republican Convention in Cleveland. All not overtly partisan media outlets implemented both the typical journalistic production norms, and the commercial imperatives that scholars identify with the ‘media logic’. It’s the unusual, the sensational that draws the attention of the media, and Trump was both, and sensational stories ‘sell well’, and bring in a lot of money. That was honestly acknowledged by CBS CEO Leslie Moonves“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

What happened with the media after Trump won the GOP nomination in July is something that will need further academic investigation. The news media suddenly realized that they had contributed to the process of ‘king-making’, a traditional power in the hands of the US media, but in this case it turned out to be a frightening burden. All the major (as well as several minor) media, even those traditionally aligned with the conservatives endorsed Hillary Clinton sort of felt remorseful, and started to strike a different chord. The liberal media stopped pretending to be unbiased observers of the political fray, and initiated an escalating, overt ‘anti-Trump’ campaign that lasted until the eve of Election Day. To what extent this media war helped again, of course in a quite different way, Trump to get elected as 45th President of the United States remains to be assessed. But some ‘mea culpa’ for failing to predict Trump’s victory are starting to be heard in the defeated anti-Trump camp, like from the New York Times and the Washington PostAnna Palmer and Jake Sherman in Politico’s Playbook newsletter sum up marvelously the new certitude: “We were all wrong. That seems obvious, right? But we were more than wrong. We were laughably oblivious. The entire Washington political-media complex completely missed the mark. Not by inches or feet, but by miles.” Let alone that by bombarding Trump on a daily basis, the media might also have fueled an “underdog effect” that prompted many undecided voters to support the “hated” candidate.

Did the media then ‘create’ Trump? They clearly did not create the personage, who was already to some extent a media darling, but contributed, unintentionally at first, and regretfully later, to the build up of his political persona, if negative. At the end the media may have been complicit in the defeat of Hillary Clinton, a candidate who was all but advantaged by a (too) favorable media frenzy.