The Donald may be master of the Twitter-verse, but his influence extends at least as much from the structural contradictions of old media campaign coverage.

A year ago, experts were saying Donald Trump had little chance of winning the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. A political outsider, he was an insult-prone, ticking time bomb who had never held political office; he exhibited not just ignorance of but contempt for the basic knowledge required for running the country, and he lacked the support of the party hierarchy.

Now, one year on, the Donald is the Republican front-runner and presumed party nominee, and the continued insistence of experts that Mr Trump cannot win the general election is eerily reminiscent of the predictions (likely soon to be proved wrong) that he would not take the party nomination.

For campaign watchers, the past year of seeing Mr Trump in action has been something akin to a circus, at times leaning closer to the Roman version than the version promoted by P.T. Barnum. He has branded Mexicans “rapists”; called for a ban on immigration by Muslims; openly mocked a reporter’s physical disability, and has carried out a months-long series of verbal attacks on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly.

Mr Trump’s campaign rallies (or as he calls them, “shows”) have been marked by conflict with and attacks on protesters and media alike, and he has encouraged his supporters to treat them violently. (Although he has denied encouraging such violence, it is not difficult to find examples. A recent video montage posted by the New York Times is most revealing.)
To an unprecedented extent, the Trump campaign has taken on a character akin to the Jerry Springer Show. And yet his campaign shows no signs of losing influence—quite the contrary.

New Media, New Politics?

A recent study from the MIT Media Lab indicates the new media ecosystem may have something to do with the Trump campaign’s success. In the digital environment, the study suggests, a candidate with the proper skills and savvy can do an end-run around mass media gatekeepers and the party apparatchik. Although these old institutions still exert tremendous influence, according to the report, “the old influence hierarchy has been shattered, replaced by a new mosaic of influence in which social media play a growing role.”

In other words, we can explain the success of a Donald Trump (or a Bernie Sanders) in Campaign 2016 because, where once traditional media served to temper the conversations around the election, now candidates (and others) can go directly to the electorate with their messages. And according to the report, which looked at the intersection of social media and news media, Mr Trump is “the master of both domains.”

Not surprisingly, the top three influencers on the MIT list are the three people who now appear most likely to take the presidency: Mr Trump taking the number one spot, Hillary Clinton at number two, and Bernie Sanders coming in third. They are followed by other current and former candidates in this election cycle (spots four through seven), Barack Obama (eighth) and so on. The MIT algorithm shows political candidates are the most influential group in this election cycle (69%) followed by media organizations (11%), and other politicians (10%).

Donald Trump may need traditional media, but not nearly as much as traditional media seem to need Donald Trump.

This is interesting, in a wonkish sort of way. It does seem to underscore that conversations through social media are now a very significant part of political coverage and that mainstream media are less dominant. However, it doesn’t help us understand (beyond simple ranking) how much more influential one person or organization may be than another, or why one may be more influential than another. And though the introduction to the report makes much of the shift to a new media environment, the research as presented does not suggest a clear way to make comparisons with the old media environment.

In the old media environment, candidates had to rely on mass media to make their cases to the public; in the new media ecosystem, media still matter; they just don’t matter as much. (Though as the MIT report looks at the overlap between Twitter conversations and mentions in news media, it really isn’t clear how much less they might matter.)

Other evidence suggests that Donald Trump may not ‘need’ traditional media. Or perhaps better put, Donald Trump may need traditional media, but not nearly as much as traditional media seem to need Donald Trump.

Old Media, New Influence?

In 2015, according to a report from, coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign on the three major television news networks focused disproportionately on Republicans (who were covered for 701 minutes as opposed to 248 minutes for the Democrats) and particularly on Donald Trump, who received nearly a third of all coverage (327 minutes or 32 percent)—more than all the Democratic candidates combined. This is also more than twice the campaign coverage allotted to the Democratic leader, Hillary Clinton (121 minutes) and more than 15 times the coverage of Bernie Sanders (20 minutes). In the old media environment, where influence is measured in broadcast minutes and column inches, this speaks volumes about the relative influence of the candidates.

This may help us to better understand the relative influence of the candidates (at least through network television) but it still does not explain Mr Trump’s success. Another story may help get us closer to that point, however.

Reporting for Buzzfeed, Kyle Blaine interviewed insiders at the major television networks about Mr Trump’s dominance on the airwaves. His story suggests that staff of television news organizations are well-aware of the imbalance of coverage among candidates and the major reason behind it—ratings. According to his story, the audiences drawn by coverage of Mr Trump have been good for the business of television.

He quotes CBS CEO Les Moonves saying all this coverage of Mr Trump, “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.”

In other words, if television broadcasters perpetually scramble to generate advertising revenue (even when covering political news), and more Trump equals more viewers equals higher ratings equals more revenue, then all we should expect from television is more Trump. As the quote from Moonves illustrates, the broadcasters will leave it to others to sort out the civic implications of this formula.

Once upon a time—when a broadcast license was defined as a ‘public trust’ and broadcasters were not only expected but required to serve the public interest—there was a presumption that not just campaign coverage, but news in general would be presented to audiences not for the purposes of generating revenue but for the purpose of meeting public interest requirements by providing the public with necessary and important information.

Over time, that social contract has been gutted, the idea of serving the public interest replaced with the exclusive focus on generating advertising revenue, and the ascendancy of profit-oriented broadcasting even at public service outlets. The need to generate money by entertaining viewers trumps (if you will pardon the expression) the social value of providing critical coverage of civic issues.

Mr Blaine further reports that Donald Trump’s influence with television media has extended beyond simply getting substantially more coverage than other candidates; that influence has allowed him to dictate his relationship with television media to a great extent—particularly by limiting number and placement of television cameras to control camera angles on the candidate and to limit the opportunity of media to shoot footage of supporters or protesters at Trump campaign rallies. If Mr Trump is good for media business (and clearly he knows that he is), then he can make the media eat out of his hand—or so it would seem.

Brave New World?

Writing for Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), points out that Mr Trump has learned the most effective way to get media attention: “Use dramatic and shocking action to get attention; rely on social media to control your message, engage critics, and mobilize support; depend on the feedback loop between social and traditional media to reach a mass audience.”

In an advertising-driven system, this Trump media cycle makes him a more desirable commodity for commercial media and simultaneously shifts the balance of influence from the media themselves to Mr Trump. As Mr Simon puts it,“The media relationship is defined by power, and as the power of traditional media ebbs, the relationship between journalists and those they cover is redefined.”

For Mr Simon, the new media ecosystem not only reduces the role of journalists as gatekeepers, but it places additional risks on them in carrying out their jobs. “This is because what keeps journalists safe is not just legal protections and institutional safeguards,” he writes. “It’s also their usefulness to powerful forces seeking to communicate with the public.” 

This isn’t true only for Donald Trump (as Mr Simon points out), but it does seem to particularly benefit those who follow the shock-engage-feedback model he uses. One needs to be particularly outrageous to do this well, and it may explain at least in part why other candidates are not benefitting in the same way.

To reiterate, in the new media environment, Mr Trump does not need the press to communicate his message as much as they need him to draw an audience. This means he can call the shots when media cover his “shows”. What’s more, he can treat journalists with impunity, using them as props in his ongoing media spectacle. It means he can insult them for shock effect, focusing the rage of his supporters squarely on members of the press. And this makes it more difficult, if not impossible (and dangerous), for media to do the job we need them to do.

We cannot fully understand the Trump phenomenon through the lens of the media landscape. Clearly he strikes a chord with his supporters, and healing the body politic will require addressing issues underlying that support. But it is clear that our current, advertising-driven model of broadcasting is not serving our information needs, and there is little evidence that the new media ecosystem is correcting that model’s failures.
Unless we can address these structural problems, we won’t be able to expect better from media.

Art by Catalin Zaharia