Here we go again. About 30 minutes into counting the first votes of the Iowa caucus, the Associated Press, CNN, NBC and various other news networks called it for Donald Trump.
There was little doubt that the former president wasn’t going to dominate the rural state. But the rush to declare him the victor — in violation of policies that prohibit such calls before the polls close — was a blatant attempt to soak up the election night audience.
This followed another departure from traditional editorial practices when MSNBC and CNN refused to screen Trump’s victory speech. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, casting herself and her network as defenders of the republic, justified the unusual decision with typical, exaggerated commentary. Maddow said her network would suffer by “knowingly broadcasting untrue things”. The Iowa primary heralded “democracy falling to an authoritarian and potentially fascist form of government”. For his part, Jake Tapper of CNN suggested his network had to shield viewers from “anti-immigrant rhetoric”.
Trump responded in kind. “NBC and CNN refused to air my victory speech,” he said at a rally in New Hampshire the following day. “Think of it — because they are crooked. They’re dishonest, and frankly, they should have their licenses or whatever they have taken away.”
And with that, election season has started, along with the outrage cycle from which both Trump and legacy media reap mutual benefit. The more media outlets lean into partisan anti-Trump coverage, the more gleefully he campaigns against the media as a biased institution.
It’s a pattern that first took shape nine years ago, when Trump launched his campaign with a series of inflammatory statements. Mexican migrants are rapists! Ban all Muslim immigration! Why can’t I call women “fat pigs, slobs, and disgusting animals”? The extreme remarks rolled on.
In response, the media abandoned objectivity. Journalists inserted themselves into the story, often challenging Trump directly and darkly warning readers to oppose him. The New York Times and Washington Post broke tradition and used the words “lie” and “liar” on their splash to describe a presidential candidate. The media used any opportunity to present Trump in a negative light. MSNBC, despite its supposed rule against broadcasting falsehoods, reported salacious stories casting Trump as a Russian intelligence asset. The press pitted itself against the candidate. While popular on cable television, this approach is very much divorced from journalism that seeks to understand why voters were attracted to his message on trade, his unorthodox opposition to foreign military interventions, or the anger he mobilised against establishment elites.
Trump, for his part, embraced this approach, even encouraging his supporters to jeer the assembled journalists at his campaign rallies. “I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I have ever met,” Trump would say, to be met with uproarious applause.
All decorum gone, the clashes drove record viewership and unprecedented profits for media corporations. Meanwhile, the endless anti-Trump headlines in the liberal media only made his point about bias, while also keeping him right at the heart of every story.
The profit dynamic was significant. In 2015, Les Moonves, then-chief of CBS News, was giddy with the Trump-driven audience. “Looking ahead,” he told investors, “the presidential election is right around the corner and, thank God, the rancour has already begun.” On another call, Moonves claimed the carnivalesque campaign was fueling “pretty phenomenal” political advertising revenue. “Go Donald! Keep getting out there!” he chuckled, according to a recording of the call.
The Washington Post and New Yorker enjoyed record circulation. MSNBC and CNN also claimed unprecedented viewership, finally outflanking Fox News, as each network competed for an audience hungry for Trump controversies — some of which, like the “Steele Dossier”, were outright fabrications. “The heightened political climate continues to benefit CNN,” John Martin, head of Turner, told the Financial Times.
Even the New York Times had a “Trump Bump”. Mark Thompson, then the Times’s chief executive, celebrated a continued revenue spike well after the campaign ended, as coverage of “exceptional news events, including the firing of James Comey”, helped add 109,000 new digital customers.
But with Biden came the Trump slump. The Washington Post lost nearly a third of its digital audience, and last October announced large cutbacks to its workforce. Viewership rates are down at all the major cable and television networks with NBC and MSNBC, just last week, reported yet another round of layoffs.
No wonder, then, that the anti-Trump narrative is rearing its head again. The Iowa coverage already points to what lies ahead, as Trump is described as a “psychopathic criminal” and his entire base built on a “cult of personality”. The media will again do battle in an attempt to prevent the former president from returning to the White House.
Paradoxically, though, this is bound to help, not hinder Trump’s campaign. In 2016, journalists were so distracted by the latest Trump Tweet that they paid no heed to the electorate, its deep frustration at the establishment and its longing for a change agent.
But such are the incentives, outlets are bound to overplay their hand again. The professional and financial advantages are such that non-partisan journalism is forgotten. The media will cast themselves as defenders of democracy and joust with Trump and his campaign, little realising that their crusade will lead him straight back to the White House.