Despite his frequent lamentations regarding the wrongs he has suffered from “fake news,” President Donald Trump owes his political career — indeed, his entire celebrity persona — to an inordinate amount of, frankly, frequently erroneous media attention.
Yet, as a long-shot 2016 presidential candidate and now as the Oval Office occupant, he continues to pretend that reporting about him is biased against him, all of which in turn justifies his prolific use of Twitter and other social media — the only means at his disposal, he insists, by which an accurate story of his administrations successes can be told, his personal grievances aired.
It’s political theatre, and Trump knows precisely how to please his audience. As Peter Bradshaw recently wrote for The Guardian, Trump “senses that his cantankerous, boorish, semi-satirical, complacent shtick plays well and does it deliberately: the very essence of stardom.”
Need evidence that this showman shtick works? Well, a well-trafficked story published last weekend by POLITICO offered a plausible, supportive theory: Trump’s elaborate hateration act toward the mainstream media apparently plays well in so-called “news deserts,” defined as places where news sources are scarce and people are less likely to have access to credible information.
In this special report posted Sunday, POLITICO’s Shawn Musgrave and Matthew Nussbaum argued that the impact of Trump’s media attacks were rooted in “statistical reality.”
POLITICO studied election results county-by-county across most of the nation and compared them to figures compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), a media trade organization that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The study included more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties in every state, except Alaska, which doesn’t hold county-level elections.
Using this data, the reporters showed that Trump did better than Mitt Romney, the previous GOP presidential nominee, as well his 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, in the U.S. counties with the lowest numbers of newspaper subscribers. By contrast, Trump failed to show this political strength in the counties with more newspaper subscribers.
Specifically, the report found:
• In counties where Trump’s vote margin was greater than Romney’s in 2012, the average subscription rate was only about two-thirds the size of that in counties where Trump did worse than Romney.
• Trump struggled against Clinton in counties with better-read residents. Put another way, counties in the top 10 percent of subscription rates were twice as likely to go for Clinton as those in the lowest 10 percent.
• Trump’s share of the vote tended to drop in accordance with the amount of homes with news subscriptions. For every 10 percent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points.
Musgrave and Nussbaum conclude that “the results show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election…[and] the decline of local media sources by itself may have played a role in the election results.”
Such a view tends to be shared widely by mainstream journalists and media analysts, who have long decried the shuttering of newspapers across the nation and the layoffs of journalists in surviving newsrooms as a looming threat to democracy.
When people don’t have good news, they create their own story lines about what’s going on. Or, worse, someone comes to them with stories that feed into their fears and prejudices.
According to a 2017 study by the Pew Research Center, the estimated U.S. daily newspaper circulation (print and digital combined) in 2016 — the most recent period for which figures were available — was 35 million for weekday and 38 million for Sunday, both of which fell 8 percent over the previous year. Declines were highest in print circulation, falling 10 percent during the week and 9 percent on Sundays. Correspondingly, Pew Research noted that only 41,400 people worked as reporters and editors in the newspaper industry in 2015 (the last year available), down 4 percent from 2014 and a whopping 37 percent from 2004.
Lorraine Branham, dean of the Newhouse School of Journalism at Syracuse University, said in an interview that she has long suspected declining circulation and newsroom cutbacks were having a deleterious effect on the public’s awareness of politics.
“It was just a sense that I’ve had for quite some time,” said Branham, who spent 25 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before entering academia. “Given what has happened in this country with newspapers, in general, over the past 20 years, it’s no surprise to me that there are places that don’t have access to news and information they need.”
Branham said that people who lack access to credible and trusted news sources tend to feel detached from what’s going on both in their communities as well as the national, and international, scene. “When people don’t have good news, they create their own story lines about what’s going on,” she said. “Or, worse, someone comes to them with stories that feed into their fears and prejudices.”
While agreeing with the overall sentiment of alarm over the decline in U.S. newspapers and newsrooms, Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, cast some doubt on Musgrave and Nussbaum’s report.
Benton argued the POLITICO study is flawed because, among other things, it ignored the fact that media scholars don’t agree on either the existence or the dimensions of “news deserts.” Moreover, he says, the study failed to take into account the influence of television and other broadcast sources of news in local communities, and it relied too heavily on AAM data, which is over-represented by large newspapers and underrepresented by small, local newspapers.
“I have a lot of sympathy for those who argue that the decline of local newspapers has led to a decline in government accountability, political engagement, and a host of other democratic ills,” Benton wrote Monday on the Nieman Lab website “But this study doesn’t really show what people are claiming it does. The underlying argument might be true, but the data the authors are using doesn’t prove their case.”
Nevertheless, Benton is willing to co-sign the larger point. He writes:
I am absolutely willing to believe (and think there is at least pretty convincing evidence) that the decline of local newspapers has reduced engagement in the political process. I’d be very open to the idea that there is a statistical connection between the decline of local news sources and voting for Trump. (There’s plenty of evidence that Trump did extremely well among what political scientists call “low-information voters,” and there is a clear connection between low-information status and media consumption patterns.) The decline of local media is arguably the largest problem journalism faces today.
What is clearly undeniable, however, is that Trump is engaging in a systematic gaslighting of the public by repeatedly attacking the mainstream media with an almost daily digest of unsubstantiated claims about crime rates, unemployment, immigration, and other issues. When he’s challenged, he simply derides any contrary reporting as “fake news,” a claim that is increasingly, and inevitably, echoed by his political supporters.
For example, Trump recently lambasted several major media networks by name, blasting them as “fake,” “sick,” and “biased,” after a leaked script from the right-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group was published online by the more reputable Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Sinclair had demanded anchors at its affiliated stations read “must-run” commentaries, which were, in essence, propaganda produced for the purpose of bolstering Trump’s policies and political views.
The combined net impact of these widening news deserts — and the success that Sinclair’s state-run propaganda machine is having filling these voids — is that it allows Trump to distort reality to suit his authoritarian purposes. Without a news media that is that reliably trusted as a local source for credible news and information, Trump is unrestrained, running roughshod over democracy with his campaign of misinformation and lies.