Commentary: Trump and the Media

Jun 14, 2016

Credit Gage Skidmore / Flickr

I just finished an interesting book entitled The Republic of Spin by historian and journalist David Greenberg.  It is a history of how presidents have managed mass media.

It starts with Teddy Roosevelt, the first president to aggressively shape his image and message in newspapers and by embracing the medium that was emerging at the time – motion pictures.

  His cousin Franklin Roosevelt was equally adept at media management by also leveraging an emerging medium – radio.  His Fireside Chats were brilliant.

The next president with a great media reputation was John Kennedy, whose so-called “cool” personality was perfect for television.  His active cultivation of reporters and media moguls didn’t hurt.

One of the main reasons Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were underrated for a long time is that they were sandwiched between two of the most mediagenic presidents ever – FDR and JFK.  Only when the substance of Truman’s and Eisenhower’s accomplishments became apparent, sometimes decades later, did their reputations overcome their relative lack of media savvy.

Along came Ronald Reagan, who was also effective on TV because he had the added advantage of having been a professional actor.  “Sound bites” and “photo ops” started during Reagan’s years in the White House.

Barack Obama was the first president to bypass traditional media and effectively use the Internet and social media during his campaigns.  While conducting presidential business, however, he has mostly relied on traditional media.

So it was sweetly coincidental when earlier this month the New York Times analyzed Donald Trump’s campaign from a media management point of view.  It said the Trump campaign “has produced a huge amount of inexpensive programming that has consistently dominated the ratings and the conversation across the entire media landscape – cable news, broadcast news, radio, Twitter, Facebook.”

Some wonder if the Trump approach, which is basically to pump out content, content, content and keep social media, especially Twitter, lit up all the time, represents the future of political media.

The Clinton campaign and many Republicans believe that this strategy will backfire in the general election campaign because it will alienate too many key voter groups.  The Clinton campaign hopes this is what will happen.  Republicans are afraid this is what will happen.

How many times have we heard: “That’s it.  Trump’s finally said something so outrageous that his candidacy is surely doomed.”?  These are the same people who have not yet learned that you underestimate Donald Trump at your peril.

Dr. Terry Smith is a political science professor at Columbia College, and a regular commentator for KBIA’s Talking Politics