Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from a class assignment.
“It is time to start ignoring him. You guys are playing his game, you are his oxygen.” These words are part of an email in which the former W. Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to convince CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria to stop giving so much attention to Donald Trump. In Powell’s opinion, Trump was benefiting from the enormous attention the media was giving him, even if it was often negative, as it helped the Republican candidate to spread the unconventional image that he wanted to create. By contrast, his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, was earning less attention from the media, which were portraying her in a much more sober way. Nevertheless, journalists did not follow Powell`s advice, and in the following months, the attention Trump received from the media and the eccentricity they were diffusing increased. After exactly 11 months, contrary to the expectation of most journalists, and people throughout the globe, Donald Trump was elected to be the 45th president of the United States. The media treated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump differently, and this diverse coverage helped Trump to win the election and preceding contests.
Clinton and Trump had completely different media treatment because they were two completely different candidates, who adopted two completely different strategies for their campaigns. Having served as First Lady during the administration of her husband from 1993 to 2001, a US senator from 2001 to 2009, and as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, Clinton is a veteran politician, who decided to run in a traditional way. By contrast, Trump is a real estate developer and reality show star, who had never held a political office before running for president. However, he had always been quite active in politics, switching from the Republican party to the Reform party, and to the Republican party again, founding a presidential exploratory committee in 1999, and promoting his socially liberal and economically conservative views in his book The America We Deserve, published in 2000. When in 2015 he announced his candidacy for the American presidential electoral race of 2016, he immediately presented himself as an outsider in politics, and decided to run in an unconventional way. Beyond assuming the unlikely role of a “foreigner to politics” determined to become the President of the United States, Trump immediately came out with extremely contentious views, which involved misogyny, racism, and islamophobia.
Since Trump’s strategy was new in American political history he received “hugely” more attention from the media than Clinton. As the political reporter Nicolas Confessore demonstrates in his article “$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Donald Trump,” Trump spent only 10 million dollars on political advertising, while Clinton spent 27.9 million dollars. However, Trump benefited far more than Clinton from earned media. In fact, mediaQuant, a firm that analyses the media coverage of each candidate and calculates a dollar value compared to advertising rate, shows that Trump earned 1.898 billion dollars worth of free media, while Clinton only 746 million. Moreover, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer Paul Senatori says that, differently from Clinton, Trump had “no weakness in any of the media segments”, since he got more media value in any kind of earned media. As a matter of fact, using the data from the TV News Archive, the writer Kalew Leetaru, in his article “The 2016 Candidates Who Are Making Headlines,” shows that at the beginning of the political campaign in 2015, Trump was mentioned by TV news programs 393,437 times in 100 days, while Clinton only 207,302 times. As far as attention from the press, the writer Adrienne Lafrance analyzed the presidential candidates’ coverage in 50 newspapers in Nexis’s archives over a 13-month period from July 2015 to August 2016, showing that newspapers published 29,019 articles about Trump and 18,640 stories about Clinton.
The media gave Trump and Clinton different attention, and presented them differently, helping Trump to persuade people with his theatrical political campaign, even if the commentaries toward him were often negative. In fact, adopting the mantra “no publicity is bad publicity,” Trump took advantage of his notoriety, even when the media sharply criticized him. According to the writer Michael Kruse, in Trump’s campaign “mistakes, flagrant provocations and the attendant bad publicity genuinely [didn’t] matter, so long as they serve the goal of owning the spotlight.” Indeed, we can see “flagrant provocation” from the moment he announced his run for the Republican nomination for president in the Trump Tower atrium in Manhattan on June 16, 2015, as that day he said about Mexican immigrants: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Jim Dowd, the CEO of Dowd Ink, who did public relations for Trump from 2004 to 2010, explains that he “is of the mindset that the more his name is dropped, the more a kind of hypnosis, for lack of a better word, there is to the American public.”
While the media presented Clinton as the future president of the United States, they did not take Trump seriously. They graded Clinton “according to how well she [was] following the “rules” of a traditional campaign,” like they did for all the politicians before her, while they judged Trump “for simply not running a traditional campaign.” For instance, on September 23, 2016, Times’s journalists argued that no candidate in the 2016 presidential elections “[came] close to matching Clinton’s qualifications, expertise or understanding of the political process,” although she lacked “the authentic, let’s-have-a-beer personality” peculiar of Trump. Indeed, the journalists Rutenberg and Poniewozik state that the media expected Clinton to win, and they only treated Clinton like “she might be elected, set policy and make appointments”, as they did with all the candidates before her, while they considered Trump “a future trivia question.” Similarly, the pollster Geoff Garin claims that Hillary was asked to answer serious questions, while Trump was treated as a “theatrical figure.” Additionally, the entrepreneur Peter Thiel states that the media made the mistake of taking Trump literally, but not seriously. On the contrary, his voters took him seriously but not literally. For example, when Trump declared he would build a wall to separate Mexico from the United States in order to prevent Mexican immigration, the journalists reported the fact as if he would build a new Great Wall of China, but Trump voters thought he would offer “a saner, more sensible immigration policy.” Even when the polls showed that Trump had more chances to win than Clinton, the media kept picturing Clinton as the future president. The statistician and writer Nate Silver pointed out that journalists acted like “pundits” towards Trump, as they first made assumptions about the results of the election, and then looked for statistics which supported their hypothesis, instead of drawing conclusions after observing data.
By presenting Clinton as a politician with all the necessary attributes to win the election, and Trump as a showman, the media helped Trump to establish himself as an outsider in politics and to impress people. Indeed, the reporter Philip Bulb claims that for millions of Americans “Trump’s lack of government experience [was] precisely the sort of qualification they [were] looking for.” Moreover, Trump turned his political campaign into a show, and the media exaggerated this show, considering him “a billionaire reality-television star.” Therefore, the image of Trump that journalists drew seemed to have nothing in common with his predecessors, while they talked about Clinton similarly to how they talked about previous candidates. Picturing Trump differently from other, “real,” politicians, the media made people think Trump would be able to make greater changes, and to lack the falsehood and the corruption associated with politics. By contrast, even if Clinton proposed more progressive policies, people thought her to be more conservative than Trump and connected dishonesty to her character because she seemed not to be different from previous politicians, besides the fact that she is a woman.