Trump: News Media's Worthy Competitor

Published in Online Spin, May 12th, 2017

They say competition makes you stronger. When you’re on your own, there’s a tendency to slack off. When you compete, you have to be better than your opponent, who has to be better than you, and the two of you push each other further and further until ultimately you are delivering the absolute best performance you are capable of.
This is not to say competition always produces better outcomes. In the quest to win, people will often go too far, in sports as well as business. But in general, in a competitive environment, all participants will perform at a higher level than they otherwise would.

Which brings us to the mainstream news media and the current administration. During the election, the media’s competition was each other, along with Facebook and every other content provider on the Internet.

On the Internet, righteous indignation beats all.

In a field where 22 Republicans and Democrats were playing the time-honored game of Avoid-The-Scandal, Donald Trump played the opposite strategy: Embrace-The-Scandal.

It worked. What we saw was a race to the bottom: who could be first to report the most shocking, the most titillating, the most outrageous latest developments.

Whether you loved or loathed The Donald, his every action added fuel to the fire, and visibility to his campaign. He received $5.6 billion dollars in free earned media, more than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio combined.

Whether his victory was a result of this unprecedented level of coverage, the flaws in Clinton’s campaign, James Comey’s letter, the urban-rural divide, or any of myriad other reasons will be debated ad infinitum.

But no matter why he won, it’s undeniable that many in the news media have changed tactics.

Shortly after the election, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr and executive editor Dean Baquet wrote an open letter aiming to “rededicate” themselves to their mission, which includes “hold[ing] power to account, impartially and unflinchingly.”

Univision’s Jorge Ramos, speaking at TED a couple weeks ago (talk not yet available), said that this is actually the job of all news media: to question power and hold it to account. It’s not a partisan role; this purpose holds true whether those in power are Republican or Democrat, Whig or Tory.

Questioning power and holding it to account. It’s not an easy task with someone as skilled at manipulating the narrative as Donald Trump. Imagine yourself in John Dickerson’s shoes, or in those of Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush, or Lester Holt, trying to hold the President to a particular line of questioning or to get him to justify particular statements he’s made.

That they are attempting to do this is not reflective of a particular anti-Trump bias. It is their job. If it appears that they are more vigorous in the discharging of their responsibilities than they have been under previous administrations, it is reflective of their realization that they now have a worthy adversary -- someone who, if they are not on their toes, will actively work to distort reality in his favor.

The competition has made everyone in the news media up their game. And while they are definitely far from perfect, the heightened tension has been good for business. According to the Washington Post, “In the immediate aftermath of the election, several publications reported subscription bounces. The Wall Street Journal reported a 300 percent spike on the day after Trump's victory. The Times added about 132,000 subscribers in a three-week period.”

Question power and hold it to account. Now that the news media have a worthy adversary, they’re being forced to learn what that actually means.

Kaila Colbin