Trump, the master media manipulator

WASHINGTON • In an interview with the New York Times late last month, President Donald Trump, speaking of running for re-election in 2020, said "another reason that I'm going to win another four years is because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I'm not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes".

The remark cut close to the bone. Mr Trump's manipulation of the media has been compared to teasing a cat with a laser pointer; the cat, mesmerised by the zigzagging red spot, will chase it to the exclusion of all else.

"Trump uses social media as a weapon to control the news cycle," tweeted Dr George Lakoff, director of the Centre for the Neural Mind & Society at the University of California at Berkeley, on Jan 3.

"His tweets are tactical rather than substantive. The tweets either get his framing established first, knowing that whoever frames first tends to win. Or when things look bad for him, he diverts attention or attacks the messenger. And when he wants to test public opinion, he puts out an outrageous trial balloon," Dr Lakoff tweeted. "Reporters, social media influencers, and many others fall for it hook, line and sinker. Every time. They retweet, share and repeat his messages ad infinitum."

The mainstream media finds it impossible to ignore this. "If media companies are designed to make money by capturing audience attention, he is a perfect beast," said Mr Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The former reality TV celebrity chief executive officer began using social media to great effect and undermining the institutional media early in his campaign in 2016, pointing to the phalanx of cameras at his rallies and decrying the mainstream media as "fake news".

No president before Mr Trump has waged war on the press like this, disparaging journalists as "liars", "peddlers of falsehoods" and the "enemy of the American people", Boston Globe columnist and Newmark chair for journalism ethics at the Poynter Institute Indira Lakshmanan wrote on the institute's website this month.

One of Mr Trump's most enduring legacies may be his delegitimising of the so-called "mainstream media" - a euphemism for critical liberal media, especially the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN. His attacks have been harsh and relentless even as his praise for the pro-Trump Fox News has been generous.

The liberal media has, in return, attacked him with daily outrage. "The mainstream American broadcast media has crossed the line on a daily basis and they make clear their utter disdain for this man. They need to remember they're reporting to the American people, not to each other," Mr Tim Marshall, former diplomatic and foreign affairs editor for Sky News, told the Press Gazette this month.

The US media has for a long time been "overly obsessed with style versus substance, with the transactional versus contextual", said Mr Mele. Mr Trump is not responsible for the state of the media. The President, he said, is the natural culmination of a process that has been under way for some three decades.

The media feeds America's toxic divide. On either side of it, a core of dedicated media consumers hear nothing else but what they want to. The President himself is an example, said Mr Mele. He has 46.7 million followers on Twitter, but he follows only 45 - all of them in his circle or pro-Trump.

"If you watch only Fox News, read only Breitbart, and follow only 45 people on Twitter and read that Twitter feed... then you just have a fundamentally different view of what's happening in the world," said Mr Mele.

Mr Trump's constant attacks and outrage raise his credibility with his base, said Dr Lakoff. "He can portray himself as a victim of the 'establishment', under constant attacks (which he provokes with tweets). He acts, his opponents only react. He is in heroic control."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2018, with the headline 'Master media manipulator'. Print Edition | Subscribe