University of Chicago

Media Manipulation in the Trump Era by Radhika Upadhye

            The lines between politics, news, and entertainment can often be blurry, but President Donald Trump and his administration have beaten down these distinctions in an alarming and unprecedented manner through their interactions with mainstream television news networks. For Trump, who was a businessman and television personality before becoming President of the United States, it seems to be near impossible to leave behind his larger-than-life reality TV persona in favor of a more even-tempered appearance favored by many more traditional politicians. The result of this inability, or deliberate refusal, to abandon theatrical gimmicks has already proven to be dangerous as it contributes to the polarization of the country’s political discourse, and could potentially be the source of long-term damage to the democratic principles which it stands on.

            Unlike his predecessors, Trump has made no attempt to stay on good terms with the press, or even to show a level of basic respect towards the function that they serve as government watchdogs in a political environment based on the freedom of speech. The contrast between Trump’s comments about and directed towards the reporters covering his events, and former president Barack Obama’s comments in similar situations, is striking. Obama began his last news conference in Washington by poking fun at his own fashion sense, before moving on to thank his press corps while emphasizing the essential role the free press plays in maintaining a vibrant democracy.[1]Despite admitting that he had not particularly enjoyed every story written about him or his policies, Obama summed up his relationship with the press by acknowledging that “You’re not supposed to be complimentary, but you’re supposed to case a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.”[2]

            On the other hand, one of Trump’s campaign catchphrases which has actually seemed to gain popularity well into his presidency is the accusation of “fake news.” In “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt compare Trump to personalities such as Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the basis of the rhetorical attacks he launched against his opponents.[3]While implying—or outright claiming without any real evidence—that the media was deliberately publishing false stories about him, Trump went so far as to label the media the “enemy of the American people” and to attack journalists and reporters individually. For example, in June 2017 Trump used his preferred means of communication (Twitter) to call out the cohosts of the talk show Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough, simply for speaking badly about him. The attack included insults such as “low I.Q. Crazy Mika” and “Psycho Joe.” Levitsky and Ziblatt note that “Even Richard Nixon, who privately viewed the media as ‘the enemy,’ never made such public attacks,” and that the most comparable behavior to Trump’s was exhibited by leaders who are widely considered to run authoritarian regimes, such as Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, and Rafael Correa.[4]

            Perhaps the most interesting part of the way the Trump administration deals with the press, however, is the blatant preferential treatment given to sympathetic networks—namely, Fox News. In an article titled “The Making of the Fox News White House,” The New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer questions whether the well-known partisan tilt of Fox News has devolved into full-blown propaganda. Mayer recounts the events of a photo op that took place in January 2019, during which Fox News host Sean Hannity seemed to not only have a much looser security policy (if any), but was mingling freely with high-ranking officials in the Trump White House.[5]Afterwards, Hannity was able to conduct an exclusive, on-air interview with Trump. This was not only Hannity’s seventh interview with the President but Fox’s forty-second overall, a number which has gone up since January. To put that in perspective, three other large television channels have only managed to get ten interviews with Trump combined. CNN, which has taken the brunt of Trump’s media-bashing, has not been granted a single one.[6]

            While seizing power over the media directly is a pretty undeniable sign of authoritarian rule, the Trump administration has, in a less obvious way, managed to consolidate a significant amount of power over the news. The effect has been increasingly visible polarization within the country based on preferred media outlets. Scott Gehlbach examines cases of authoritarian control over the media in his article “Reflections on Putin and the Media,” where he looks at the ways in which Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Peru’s Aberto Fujimori attempted to control news outlets in their countries. While taking over actual ownership is often “costly and unnecessary”[7]for the modern dictator, some form of media control is quite useful for maintaining power and pushing a particular narrative. For Trump, this means rewarding favorable news coverage with plenty of content and exclusive insight into the White House. It also means that the Trump administration can count on at least one major news network to tell the exact story that they want to be told to the public.

            One of the major dangers of this type of media manipulation is that every major news network gets pushed further to one side of the political spectrum. Fox News does practically nothing but act as the President’s personal propaganda machine, while other networks such as CNN (partly due to their political leanings, partly due to the fact that the White House does not show any inclination to work with them) seem to be working even more against Trump and his team. Most people watch only a couple of news channels at most, and they tend to watch the ones that they agree with. As a result, Trump supporters who watch Fox will rarely hear any criticism of their favored politician, while those who may oppose Trump are not offered any alternative viewpoints either. In this type of political climate, trying to understand one another and reach across party lines to create real change can feel like a monumental task not only on Capitol Hill, but in our own neighborhoods—but that seems to suit Trump just fine.


[1]“Obama’s Last News Conference: Full Transcript and Video.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/politics/obama-final-press-conference.html

[2]“Obama’s Last News Conference: Full Transcript and Video.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2017.https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/politics/obama-final-press-conference.html

[3]Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin, 2019.

[4]Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Penguin, 2019.

[5]Mayer, Jane. “The Making of the Fox News White House.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 24 Apr. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-making-of-the-fox-news-white-house.

[6]Mayer, Jane. “The Making of the Fox News White House.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 24 Apr. 2019, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-making-of-the-fox-news-white-house.

[7]Scott Gehlbach (2010) Reflections on Putin and the Media, Post-Soviet Affairs, 26:1, 77-87, DOI: 10.2747/1060-586X.26.1.77 

1 Comment

  1. Max Krause

    May 8, 2019 at 2:03 pm

    While I agree that polarization is an observable phenomenon I am somewhat willing to play devils advocate here and contest one of your concluding remarks. I am not really convinced that there is a need to “reach across party lines” in terms of news media consumption. Trying to convince hardcore partisans of the opposition’s policy positions is a completely lost cause. Those who have been marinating in AM radio and conservative talk shows for decades are never going to accept even moderately liberal perspectives because their entire identities revolve around their political positions. Similarly, there is some evidence to support the notion that Trump is successfully gas-lighting the liberal media into ideological incoherence. CNN and MSNBC panels are filled with Trump critics yet the administration’s capacity to produce news and attract eyeballs is one of the only reasons the lights are still on at most cable news stations. The media gives Trump so much coverage to the extent that he is a ubiquitous character in American culture. Approximately 30% of the country is composed of active Trump supporters; this cohort of voters will never abandon their faultless leader. Instead of trying to appeal to the “basket of deplorables” the liberal media and left-wing organizers should work to articulate the threat that Trumpism poses to American democracy. Once the people fully understand that conservative and progressive ideologies can not coexist without conflict, the need for bipartisanship evaporates. With the battle lines drawn clearly, the two parties will wrestle over control of the federal levers of power and the bureaucracy itself.

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