“Covering him as a normal candidate”: Extremism scholars say TV news “normalizing” Trump’s threats

TV news outlets increasingly ignore Trump's "dehumanizing" rhetoric at rallies despite growing threat

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published November 12, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Trump recently made alarming statements, including advocating for "ideological screening" of migrants, making divisive remarks about "liberal Jews," and praising Hezbollah, but his inflammatory remarks barely received any news coverage. 

Major TV news networks highlighted only about 22 minutes of coverage. Collectively, within the two weeks following each comment, major broadcast and cable news outlets provided less than two hours of coverage for the four comments combined, according to a new report by Media Matters for America.

The trend suggests the networks have become desensitized to Trump's frequent extreme comments even though they have covered such rhetoric in the past — like when Trump suggested the execution of Joint Chief of Staff head Mark Milley. Networks highlighted the former president’s comments, but their infrequent coverage of his inflammatory statements raise questions about why certain comments are covered and some are not. 

“If we don't call out the rhetoric as extreme, we risk making it normal and acceptable,” Libby Hemphill, a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information and the Institute for Social Research, told Salon. “Those are the downstream risks of desensitizing. Again, focusing on the impacts these statements have, like increasing antisemitic behavior generally or raising the temperature in the Middle East conflicts, helps people understand why they're dangerous, who they impact, and why speech matters.”

Trump’s recent comments about vowing to implement rigorous ideological screening of immigrants to the U.S., particularly suggesting he would turn away anyone who doesn’t like “our religion,” received little coverage. Broadcast news “totally ignored the comments,” Media Matters pointed out. Meanwhile, cable news devoted just under seven minutes of coverage and CNN and MSNBC each devoted about three minutes, with Fox News devoting less than one minute. 

Trump also made a statement on "liberal Jews'' voting to “destroy America & Israel” during the Rosh Hashanah holiday and received criticism from advocacy groups for its incendiary language and association with antisemitic tropes. Broadcast news outlets, including MSNBC (covering it for 9 minutes), CNN (covering it for just over 3 minutes), and Fox (ignoring it), did not bring attention to the statement in the subsequent two weeks, Media Matters found. 

“The coverage is normalizing extreme positions on issues and failing to challenge the dehumanization of migrants and ‘bad’ Jews that Trump paints as enemies,” Donald Haider-Markel, a University of Kansas political science professor who studies domestic extremism, told Salon. “When his dehumanizing comments are not challenged by the news media, viewers go along. If the dehumanization sticks, it makes support of political violence against ‘enemies’ more likely.”

This is partly why we’ve seen an uptick in support for political violence in polls, especially in the recent polling by Public Religion Research Institute, he noted. 

One-third of Republicans today believe that true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country, compared with 22% of independents and 13% of Democrats, according to a poll by PRRI that was published last month. Those percentages have increased since 2021, when 28% of Republicans and 7% of Democrats held this belief. 

Journalists can cover Trump's statement more like they cover extremists than how they'd cover a traditional politician, Hemphill said. For instance, rather than focusing on his specific statement, the story could be about the “targets” of the rhetoric. Trump doesn't need to be the narrative, they added. The story could also be about the reaction rather than the statements.

“I think you already see the consequences of underreporting and normalizing his rhetoric in polling about the 2024 race—in many polls Trump is running even or ahead of Biden even with his ever more extreme rhetoric,” Haider-Markel said. “The news media has not learned any lessons from the period 2015-2020 and is covering him as a normal candidate doing and saying normal candidate things.”

It’s not just his extreme statements that TV news frequently disregards, but also his “gaffes,” Media Matters reported. Cable news consistently allocates significant airtime to discussing Biden's age while largely overlooking Trump’s. 

“In fact they need to be providing more analysis of [Trump’s] statements as well as providing warnings such as ‘the following language may disturb some viewers/listeners,’” Haider-Markel said. 

We need your help to stay independent

The former president has also made other dehumanizing remarks when discussing migrants suggesting they were “poisoning the blood of our country.” The comment went unnoticed by all networks until MSNBC host Medhi Hassan highlighted it a week later. MSNBC dedicated about 12 minutes of coverage, while CNN allocated about 10 minutes. However, both broadcast news outlets and Fox News continued to overlook the statement.

While Trump’s comments praising Hezbollah as "very smart" received the most coverage compared with the other comments, it still received minimal coverage, Media Matters pointed out. Despite being covered more than the other statements, the former president's comment praising Hezbollah as "very smart" received minimal attention. ABC and NBC combined provided just over 1 minute of coverage, with CBS omitting any mention. CNN dedicated 14 minutes, Fox News 17 minutes, and MSNBC around 28 minutes, with over half of that time coming from Morning Joe. Trump made these comments just days after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel.

While the Republican front-runner's inflammatory remarks frequently face criticism from advocates and political opponents, the sparse coverage of his extreme statements could shift public opinion of him, experts say. 

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

“Voting requires accurate information,” Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told Salon. "Given Trump’s stature, the public clearly needs to be aware of what he is thinking and saying, just as they need to know the same for all the presidential candidates.”

The most important thing is for news coverage to report on the facts, Beirich explained. In the case of Trump, his words are obviously newsworthy as a presidential candidate, and the public needs to know about his “recent divisive and violent remarks.”

Providing context through reporting relevant analysis from experts on potentially harmful rhetoric is crucial, she added. “We can’t shy away from the topic when it is coming out of the mouth of possibly the next US president.”

Failing to report on Trump’s incendiary remarks could “cloud” voters’ ability to make good decisions at the ballot box, but it’s not just about Trump’s statements, Beirich said. 

“The public needs to know about policy plans, such as the program being designed for the next conservative president by the Heritage Foundation, called Project 2025,” she added. “This is all essential to make informed choices. And we have to remember Trump is not a fringe candidate. He could very well win next November, so voters need to know all about him to make their decisions on who to support, just as they need to know about the other candidates.”

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

MORE FROM Areeba Shah

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Donald Trump Politics Reporting