Trump: An Old Media Candidate

Donald J. Trump

Donald J. Trump

As journalists entered their Midtown offices on November 9 with fair-trade soy lattes in one hand, and tissues in the other, all they could ask themselves is how could this disaster have happened As they .finished typing their eulogies & statuses signaling their tolerance, social consciousness and enlightened views, they then set their eyes on the most obvious target to blame.

Before the internet, everybody would pick up an ordained newspaper and watch the same three nightly news broadcasts. Within this infovore monoculture, the American people could be guided to the “truth” by the anointed clergy of reputable journalists in clandestine newspaper office and TV studios. Now, to their horror, social media and the internet has ripped their precious monopoly of user attention away from their tiny hands, allowing the hordes of unwashed, unindoc – sorry, uneducated to create their heretical versions of the truth. It is in this world where Breitbart, Drudge and Fake News emerge from the loins of old white people from the Midwest and South to poison the masses with right wing conspiracies and fake news. Consequently, Trump, who has the same relationship with the truth as with his wives, was able to harness the chaos of his campaign to victory by leveraging the power of social media and new, alt-right websites to spin up his own reality and version of the truth.

Sarcasm aside, these are real issues with modern news consumption. Social media algorithms are driven by what makes money which is user engagement. It turns out bullsh-t is quite engaging. Our confirmation-seeking selves are too fragile to expose ourselves to “hard” news and the opposing opinions, and instead are drawn to the instant gratification of an article explaining to us for the millionth time why Trump/Hillary are the devil incarnate. The result is that Democrats and Republicans can hide in their own unique bubbles and never cross paths. This is most striking demonstrated in a WSJ report where ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ Facebook accounts were presented completely different set of news organizations and topics.

The only issue with this narrative is that it does not fit Trump and his victory. Instead, it is far more plausible that a 70 year old man, cable news addict, and a known technophobe is more adept at manipulating older mediums. While the aforementioned narrative is compelling and worrisome, I find it hard to believe that NBC reality TV star Donald Trump, driven to victory by the eldest segments of the population, who are the least likely to consume online news and social media, fits the description. His social media presence just is not large enough to hit broad segments of the electorate, especially the ones who voted for him. Pro-Trump websites like Breitbart and Drudge are just not that large compared to competitors to be given much explanatory power. It is even more ludicrous to say Twitter gives Trump a new microphone. A major party’s presidential candidate saying nonsensical things at 4am will get reported regardless of the era. Instead a mirror needs to be rolled out so that newspaper editors and cable news executives can see the monster that they have birthed.

The incentives of old and new media organizations are not very different. New media is accused of catering to what the consumer wants rather than should hear. Instead of editors, algorithms fine tune each morsel of content to the user’s self confirming preferences. The result is that Facebook News feeds for conservatives and progressives portray entirely different worlds, articles and media outlets. It turns out readers are pretty bad judges of quality and accuracy and gravitate towards what they want to hear. The most flagrant example is how fake news dominated user traffic rankings. Old mediums produce the same results but through different mechanism. Consumers, instead of algorithms, did the self selection. Conservatives chose to read the Wall Street Journal and listen to their favorite talk radio pundit. In turn, progressives would read the New York Times and listen to This American Life. At the end of the day, the main difference is that the internet has dramatically shifted the distribution of content away from airwave and paper routes to social media sites and links, allowing a much wider array of content producers.

Traditional media formats have limited content bandwidth and to decide which five stories are going to air that night. It serves as a perilous bottleneck, where vast amounts of potential stories are sent in with only a couple stories straggling out. A couple of stories have the potential to suck up the oxygen and dominate headlines, crowding everything else out. The frictionless nature of the internet means the torrential flood of stories poured in are vomited right back out to the consumer. The bottleneck is broken.

Trump thrives on dominating media coverage. His freak show of a campaign was estimated to generate two billion dollars of free media in the primaries, much of it positive.  Every night he a had a new act prepared. As long as he drew ratings and disposed of vial/viable conservatives the rapacious media did not care. The summer of Trump was marked with nightly commercial free airing of his rallies. Carefully prepared policy or victory speeches of opponents would be interrupted by camera shots of an empty stage awaiting his arrival and hotly anticipated unhinged antics. The Muslim ban proposal was a carefully planned effort to divert attention back to him and break Senator Cruz’s momentum. To counteract the negative attention of paying $25 million to settle a Trump University lawsuit case, he responds by saying something crazy (but less damaging) about the Hamilton play. His foundation admits to self dealing, queue fight with the New York Times. He spins up scandal at such a voracious rate the the media funnel is overwhelmed. No one can pay attention to one story long enough for it to stick in people’s memories and do damage long term damage. This strategy works when there are only a few nightly broadcasts, channels, or space constrained news paper pages. Twitter was his preferred medium of instigating a new cycle, not connecting with voters. That was for cable news.

When the combination of new sources and ways to present that information is infinite, his control of the media cycle breaks down. In the time it takes cable news to cover one story, a user can flick through hundreds in a news feed. The inventory of the internet is simply too large for President-Elect Trump to fill it all. Unable to dictate the media news cycle, his over the top antics, incessant lying, and 3am tweeting sessions come off as unhinged and childish. It is no accident that Trump’s core base of support was shared with cable news, whose average viewer is in his mid sixties.

When analyzing why the President-Elect won, it is important to separate pre-existing factors from new ones. Unlike traditional Republican elites, Trump’s anti-immigrant, protectionist, strong-man politics spoke to a large but declining segment. Trump’s media strategy is no different. He is a backward-looking candidate whose viability was predicated on the conditions of an era rapidly coming to a close. Just because he is new phenomena does not mean the reasons why he is elected are new. Probably the most similar model of Trump is another womanizing politician, with questionable ethics, a flair for cable news, and a prodigious ability to survive scandal, Italian media tycoon and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Opponents and allies alike would do much better job studying Berlusconi than convincing themselves of how new age media and the internet wrought this leviathan of a candidate.