Shira T. Center – The Trump Factor: Covering Election 2016

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April 12, 2016 — Shira T. Center, political editor for The Boston Globe, discussed media coverage of Donald Trump, as well as the relationship between Trump supporters and the press.

Center described several factors that contributed to the media’s paradoxical coverage of Trump – characterized by an initial reluctance to view him as a serious candidate, while still providing seemingly constant coverage of him.

In summer 2015, many members of the media did not take Trump’s initial surge in popularity seriously, said Center, because they were using the “framework” of the 2012 election, in which candidates such as Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann would rise in the polls for several weeks and later fall.

By winter 2015, it was clear to the media that Trump was the front runner, “but in many ways it was too late then – the Trump train had already left the station,” said Center. Although she thought the Globe had an advantage in understanding Trump voters through its coverage of the New Hampshire primary, Center wondered if “national news organizations regret not trying to understand the Trump voter more, earlier last fall.”

Donald Trump is a businessman who has made a lot of money in New York – I can guarantee you we have only scratched the surface.

Center explained how Trump “played” media outlets, especially cable news channels hungry for ratings. “Every major news organization has a breaking news desk…these people usually seek traffic as a goal. When Donald Trump says something outlandish, it gets a lot of attention,” she said. “He would call into any cable news show by phone, and allow news organizations to really feed into that catnip for the web.” Center referenced recent analysis about the amount of free media Trump received on cable networks, which she said “puts a lot of news anchors…in uncomfortable positions.”

Many news outlets have focused their Trump coverage on “quick hits” and his latest tweets, said Center. Meanwhile, “a lot of deep dives on his record were just not explored. I think a lot of news organizations are getting to that now…Donald Trump is a businessman who has made a lot of money in New York – I can guarantee you we have only scratched the surface.”

Yet getting the story right on Trump may ultimately have little impact on his supporters, said Center. “The people who support Trump – what we’ve learned from talking with them – really don’t care,” she said. “If we’re in the business of trying to write truth and stories and raise the curtain on these candidates, in terms of the impact of our reporting…it doesn’t matter that much to a lot of Trump supporters who will support him no matter what. That’s something I’ve personally struggled with a little bit in this campaign – the role of the news media given that dynamic.”

This disconnect between the media and supporters of outsider candidates is symptomatic of a larger frustration with U.S. institutions. Center described how, while interviewing voters in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania in advance of the Pennsylvania primary, Boston Globe reporters found trends similar to those in New Hampshire, with many voters “vacillating between Trump and Sanders.”

“I think that speaks to this general dissatisfaction with Washington and the establishment…I think people are feeling disconnected to their politicians either because of the wealth gap, or because of a results gap with Congress,” she said.

The coastal location of many mainstream media outlets could also be a factor, said Center. “I would be interested to see – and reporters aren’t usually supposed to take surveys, but if they did – in terms of media on the coast, how many of them have friends who support Donald Trump.”

…it’s notable for how much Trump bashes us, how willing he is to get on the phone and call any kind of show.

“I do think it is notable that there is such a large contingency of Trump supporters who completely distrust mainstream media. I also think it’s notable for how much Trump bashes us, how willing he is to get on the phone and call any kind of show…I think he tries to have it both ways.”

Center also discussed The Boston Globe’s New Hampshire primary coverage, public reaction to the Globe’s fake front page about President Trump, the inner workings of Trump’s campaign and more. Listen to the full audio recording above.

Article and photo by Nilagia McCoy of the Shorenstein Center. Co-sponsored by Harvard’s Institute of Politics.