US Election 2016

US media turning against Donald Trump

The front page of the weekend edition of USA Today states that Mr Trump is "Unfit for the Presidency". At least five major conservative- leaning newspapers have issued surprise endorsements for Mrs Hillary Clinton.
The front page of the weekend edition of USA Today states that Mr Trump is "Unfit for the Presidency". At least five major conservative- leaning newspapers have issued surprise endorsements for Mrs Hillary Clinton.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Many outlets break with tradition to call out billionaire and endorse his rival Clinton

When USA Today, one of America's most widely read newspapers, broke a 34-year-old tradition of staying neutral in elections, it did so because it found Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump "unfit for the presidency".

In a scathing editorial published on Friday, the paper's editorial board lashed out at the New York real estate mogul, saying he lacked the "temperament, knowledge, steadiness and honesty that America needs from its president".

And while it did not go so far as to endorse Mr Trump's opponent, it concluded: "Our bottom-line advice for voters is this: Stay true to your convictions... Whatever you do, however, resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump."

The change of tack from the newspaper is the most high-profile example this year of a media outlet breaking with form to call out the billionaire. After almost a year of a complicated love-hate, co-dependent relationship between Mr Trump and the US media, an increasing number of news outlets are starting to take a stand against the tycoon.

At least five major conservative-leaning newspapers have issued surprise endorsements for Mrs Hillary Clinton, sometimes bucking a century of precedent.

The Arizona Republic has not endorsed a Democratic Party candidate since 1890; Detroit News has failed to endorse a Republican candidate only three times since 1873; both the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Cincinnati Enquirer have not backed Democrats since 1916; while the Dallas Morning News has not supported a Democrat since it backed President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944.

 
 

In each case, the editorial boards say their endorsement is as much a repudiation of the Republican nominee as it is an approval of the Democratic one.

As the Dallas Morning News wrote in its endorsement: "We reject the politics of personal destruction. Clinton has made mistakes and displayed bad judgment, but her errors are plainly in a different universe than her opponent's."

In fact, not a single major newspaper has endorsed the Republican to date. In contrast, according to the American Presidency Project, President Barack Obama had 41 editorial endorsements in 2012 to Mr Mitt Romney's 35. Some 80 newspapers had endorsed Mrs Clinton during the primaries and many have since renewed their support.

Though he does not have the backing of institutions, the billionaire has vocal surrogates among conservative media personalities. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity is said to be advising the campaign in addition to supporting it on his show, as is radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. Former Fox News chief Roger Ailes is also advising Mr Trump while Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon used to applaud Mr Trump on his right-wing website before being tapped to join the campaign.

In part, the hostility towards the candidate is a reflection of his impact on the Republican Party at large. The civil war that broke out in the party, which led so many top Republicans to skip the party's convention, is also playing out in the conservative media world.

Crude insults hurled at respected Republican figures like Senator John McCain and the Bush family have turned off moderate Republican figures and media outlets alike, just as his upheaval of long-held Republican orthodoxy has. Mr Trump is anti-trade, believes in socialised healthcare and has famously touted his flexibility on issues. That led to doubts about his conservatism from the right-wing press.

As the Arizona Republic noted in its endorsement for Mrs Clinton: "Trump's conversion to conservatism is recent and unconvincing. There is no guarantee he will name solid conservatives to the Supreme Court."

Then there is Mr Trump's own declared disdain for the media. His campaign frequently kicks out or bans journalists from its events; he is known to rile up crowds at his rallies to boo at the "dishonest media" present; and he has spoken repeatedly about wanting to toughen libel laws.

While his appearance on television continues to be good for ratings, experts say there has been a perceptible change in how willing TV anchors are to call him out.

One example of this occurred earlier last month when Mr Trump teased a major announcement about his claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the US. It turned out to be a trick to get major cable networks to broadcast a 20-minute live segment of him praising his new hotel and having military veterans paying tribute to him.

"I really don't quite know what to make of that except for that we got played again by the Trump campaign which is what they do," said CNN anchor John King after the network cut away from the event.

The big question is how much impact media endorsements have. While research has shown that voters do not put much weight on them, the changing allegiances of this year's race might make endorsements more relevant.

A recent study led by Northwestern University economist Agustin Casas looked at the impact of media endorsements on the 2008 and 2012 elections and concluded that endorsements that buck tradition could tip the scales significantly.

His team wrote: "Endorsements that are consistent with respect to the newspaper's discourse, and which come as a surprise to the newspaper's endorsement history, have a large and potentially decisive effect in tied contests."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'US media turning against Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe