The news media is blowing Trump coverage again

In 2016, the news media fell over itself to cover everything he did, this time it's making it worse

By Sophia A. McClennen

Contributing Writer

Published May 13, 2023 11:57AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November 08, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago on November 08, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

When Donald Trump descended a golden escalator in June of 2015 and announced his plans to run for president, the news media covered it. But, from that moment, it wasn't entirely sure how to do it. Was Trump's announcement absurd? Comical? Serious? Was this entertainment or a new form of politics?

Despite being confused by Trump's political persona, one thing was clear in those early days: The media might not have known how to cover Trump, but it was going to do it endlessly anyway. From then, going forward throughout his 2016 run and his first term in office, the media effectively used the same playbook. Cover every single thing Trump did, whether idiotic, terrifying, disruptive, disgusting or dangerous. Cover empty podiums awaiting him at rallies. Cover every tweet. Cover every outrageous comment. Cover it all. Cover it all the time.

The disproportionate news coverage of Trump catapulted him, without question, into being taken more seriously as a viable presidential candidate and likely played a significant role in his election. Thomas E. Patterson at Harvard Kennedy School found that Trump received far more coverage than any of his rival candidates during the 2016 primary, despite the fact that he raised less money and had no political experience. According to Patterson, the unequal coverage of Trump was due to the fact that Trump delivered spectacle and controversy, a combination designed to increase ratings. As one network executive put it, "[Trump] may not be good for America, but [he's] damn good for [us]."

But that's not all. Patterson showed that the media's obsession with Trump didn't end with the election. His data shows that the news media coverage of Trump's first 100 days exceeded any coverage of any president in media history: "On national television, Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all news stories—three times the usual amount." What's more, he found that Trump was the featured speaker in 65 percent of that coverage.

The media gets a Trump hangover 

Shortly after the election, however, there was regret. Perhaps the media had made a mistake by covering Trump endlessly, yet thinking he wasn't going to win. In the early post-election days, the media clearly had a Trump hangover. And it was nasty. But soon, it revealed that it still didn't understand its Trump problem. Rather than cover Trump with a combination of shock and awe and the occasional giggle, the dominant mode of coverage would now be outrage and overblown concern.

How many times could the media express surprise that Trump did and said the exact things he always did and said? 

In hindsight, the post-2016 election phase of media coverage may be one of the most perplexing. Still, it was Trump all the time. The only difference was the media now adopted a tone of sincerity and gravitas combined with consternation. Story after story covered the ways that the administration was dismantling our democracy and core institutions — all important to report — but with an endlessly repeated element of shock. The problem was exactly how many times could the media express surprise that Trump did and said the exact things he always did and said? The more the media covered Trump this way, the more they messed up their coverage. Trump continued to be a spectacle, while the media continued to act surprised that he was one.

The media tries to quit Trump, or does it?

Rather than adjust the tone and tenor of its coverage, the media moved to just reduce it. Finally seeming to recognize that one of the mistakes it made early on was overcovering Trump, the post-2020 election response was to just cover him less. This is the context we find ourselves in now, where some outlets deliberately avoid giving Trump endless air time. Even Rupert Murdoch announced that his right-wing media empire was over Trump and would no longer be offering free media for the "has been."

The overall concept of reducing the amount of time that Trump is on air isn't a terrible one. But there are two flaws to this plan. First, while Trump is a loser with less support than ever, he is still the Republican frontrunner. Totally ignoring him is a dumb idea because it strips voters of potentially important insight into Trump as a candidate. 

But, perhaps the biggest flaw with the cover-Trump-less plan is whether it is actually happening. Is there really less Trump coverage? Or is it more that the media is making a big deal out of occasionally not covering every little thing he does? Despite deliberately turning the cameras off of him when he announced his campaign, the news media still likes to offer audiences a heaping dose of Trump crazy when it can. Think of the excited media coverage yearning for a perp walk when Trump was indicted. Or the stunning spectacle of the Trump CNN town hall that aired on May 10.

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But it's the second flaw in Trump coverage that is the real issue, because covering Trump less still doesn't solve the media's real Trump problem. The problem has never only been whether or not they covered him; it has always been how it covered him 

Trump has confounded media coverage because his persona and his platform are unlike anything they have ever seen. Currently, much news media seems convinced that fact-checking Trump will help its coverage. But we have years of evidence that shows that strategy is useless.Yet, it's not just that the news media doesn't get that fact-checking Trump doesn't solve its coverage problem; it is that they don't recognize that the spectacle of fact-checking Trump, endlessly, again and again, just makes them look ridiculous.

It's hard to know what's worse. Trump's circus act or the media's.

This gets us to the core of the news media challenge of covering Trump: more than any other candidate, the spectacle of Trump exposes the ways that the news media itself is increasingly more hype than information. The problem, then, is that the news media is its own form of spectacle, but, unlike Trump who openly brags about his media performances, the news media refuses to admit it.

Let's face it. CNN held the town hall with Trump to generate their own form of media attention. And what happened at the town hall was entirely predictable. Trump was classic Trump, his supporters stayed on script, and the moderator acted as expected, valiantly attempting to correct falsehoods as Trump interrupted and ignored her. There was nothing new whatsoever to see.

Yet, watch the post-town hall coverage act like there is surprise that he wasn't more measured, that he repeated lies, that he disrespected the moderator, and that his supporters acted like craven cult members. Seriously?

It's hard to know what's worse. Trump's circus act or the media's.

As Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out in a post-townhall piece for The Guardian criticizing CNN for its coverage, "It's as if they have learned nothing."

The media still doesn't know how to cover Trump, but the comedians do

In September of 2015, when Stephen Colbert first took over as host of "The Late Show" on CBS, he did a bit where he promised viewers he wouldn't obsessively cover everything Trump. But then, he explains that he can't resist. Likening covering Trump to bingeing on Oreos, Colbert ends the bit having stuffed a bag of the cookies down his mouth, covered in crumbs.  The joke was that a comedian did a better job of pointing out the media's obsession with Trump than the media itself could.

From the start, as I explain in my new book Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn'tsatire has been more effective at covering Trump than the traditional news media.

Trump is the most unusual political figure our nation has ever seen. Equal parts buffoon and autocrat, bully and effective strategist, absurd and scary. The news media still hasn't figured out whether to take him seriously, mock him, analyze him, or debate him. Satirists, in contrast, know that one answer to covering Trump is to fight his destructive spectacle with insightful spectacle. 

While the news media continues to offer what seems like performative outrage over Trump — a deceptive spectacle in its own right — satire has exposed the Trump spectacle for exactly what it is: mesmerizing and manipulative. Rather than waste time shocked by Trump's lies, bluster, bigotry, and bullying, comedians have focused on Trump's flaws as a statesman, his twisted logic, his narcissistic, enigmatic persona and his complete disregard for democratic norms. This is why comedians like Seth Meyers, who schooled Trump in 2017 for not understanding the job of the president after his "both sides" remarks following the Nazi rally in Charlottesville, have been able to destabilize Trump better than most news media.

Comedians also get that the issue isn't whether or not to cover Trump, it is how to do it, a lesson we still aren't seeing taken to heart in mainstream news. Instead, audiences get what seems like an act, where the news media worries it shouldn't cover Trump, does so anyway, then creates a scandal out of classic Trump behavior.

So, as long as the news media continues to cover Trump with its characteristic combination of feigned outrage, overblown shock, and performative concern, it'll be the comedians who get the story straight.  

By Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book is "Trump Was a Joke: How Satire Made Sense of a President Who Didn't."

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