Tow Center

Donald Trump is a media organization

January 10, 2017
Trump Tower in Chicago. Photo: Daniel Huzinga/flickr.

It is inconceivable that Donald Trump, president-elect of the United States, was not watching the Golden Globes on Sunday night, or at least following it on his phone. His difficult history with awards shows is only matched by his intense, professional interest in their outcome. The consistent snubs delivered by the Emmys to The Apprentice, the vehicle that made his presidency possible, left a deep and oft-tweeted impression on Trump. Consequently, his 6:27 am tweet aimed at “overrated” Meryl Streep the morning after she delivered her corruscating view of his candidacy was a typically well-timed press statement from PEOTUS.

While Donald Trump might represent an alien being to political reporters, his modus operandi is unsettlingly familiar to those who have covered corporate media. Trump’s behavior is not that of a “normal” president, or even a regular politician per se, but of a loud, competitive, digitally attuned, populist media organization. For Trump, the medium is not just the message, it is the office, too. His chief of strategy Steve Bannon was most recently editor in chief at Breitbart, and will essentially be editor in chief to Trump as president. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law with Trump’s ear, owned The New York Observer. Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire who put Gawker out of business by backing the multimillion-dollar lawsuit brought by Hulk Hogan, is also in the trusted inner circle of supporters. Rupert Murdoch apparently talks to Trump two or three times a week–an extraordinary level of access to an incoming president by a media owner, if true.

For the organizations that cover Trump, one of the disorienting issues is that Trump does not rely on their interpretation or publicity; in many ways, Trump sees himself not just in opposition to the existing press but in competition with them, too. Margaret Sullivan’s piece on the role of Jeff Zucker, who rose through the entertainment ranks at NBC to become head of CNN, in Trump’s career is highly instructive. But Trump as a media organization is now running rings around his creator.

In many ways, Trump sees himself not just in opposition to the existing press but in competition with them, too.

Producing morning television or radio, after all, is so much easier when you dispense with the cumbersome business of “production values,” or the costs of journalism, just as long as you have compelling content. To set the morning agenda you don’t need studios, technicians, producers, fixers, interns, lights, cameras, hair and make-up. You don’t even need advertisers. All you need is a captivating guest who will, at around 6:30 am Eastern Standard Time, reliably say something that will set the agenda for the rest of the day. That way you can “own” the morning, enjoy the highest ratings, and make sure everybody is talking about your show–until tomorrow, when the cycle repeats itself.

Last week it was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low ratings on The Celebrity Apprentice that inspired a tweeted response, then Toyota’s car plant in Mexico, and the Florida shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport, which left five dead. There is no guarantee this stream of consciousness will continue once Trump is in office, but as with a media organization, it seems unlikely that Trump will go “off the air.” We don’t know yet how and if he will distinguish his presidency from a media entity. Last week David Brooks in The New York Times described Trump as a “Snapchat President,” a compelling image even if Trump’s use of Snapchat peaked with the distribution of “Crooked Hillary” filters ahead of the election. Actually, Trump is very much stuck in the broadcast age, hence his preference for Twitter and his obsession with cable news.

There has been a lot of discussion in the political press about how to cover Trump’s Twitter feed, as though it were separate from his intentions or thoughts as president, or as though ignoring it and focusing on the substance of the future administration will produce a markedly different result. But the Twitter feed and the presidency will be symbiotically intertwined.

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Trump instinctively tweets to a schedule that suits the biorhythm of the audience and the other media apparatus; he tests his opinions and appointments with the assiduousness of a scheduler A/B testing his programming; he understands the interplay between the real-life event, his social media footprint, and the ongoing projection of the online-offline media cycle better than most legacy news executives. As if urged by so many social media gurus, he tweets and posts enthusiastically and regularly with an “authenticity” that overrides the countervailing requirement for impulse control or sometimes even basic common sense. Ratings drive everything: followers, viewers, shares, audiences, attendees.

The response to press that Trump disagrees with is a well-worn lexicon of rebuttal–“lies!” “rigged!” “biased media!”–but he as often adopts the language of a commercial competitor, describing the Times as “failing,” disparaging CNN’s viewing figures rather than tackling substantial stories or negative coverage on a point-by-point basis.

Framing Trump as a media entity should not diminish the seriousness with which we treat the power of a Trump Presidency. On the contrary, it is important that we examine just how potentially toxic the complete convergence between politics and media might be. In media terms, “convergence” has always been talked about as the state whereby internet technologies allow all types of communication and content to operate on the same platform through the same technologies, or even to be concentrated into one service. It has been viewed as a business problem, or, more often than not, a business opportunity. It also produces very profound political, economic, social, and cultural effects that are only just revealing themselves to a broader audience.

It is important that we examine just how potentially toxic the complete convergence between politics and media might be.

When the President of the United States can start a war of words on Twitter, could he by intention or design start a real war there, too? We are living in a moment in which communications regulation, both official and cultural, is in freefall. Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey set the rules whereby heads of state communicate and the rest of us respond. Other disruptive political movements–the Brexit campaign in the UK; the Five Star Movement in Italy; and, most notoriously, ISIS–have also used the convergence of communications technologies to recruit and activate entirely new power bases.

Politico Europe broke a story yesterday noting that UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn would be “adopting the Trump playbook” in his own attempt to galvanize support among voters, noting that the decision had been taken within Corbyn’s camp “to overhaul their media strategy, taking direct inspiration from the US president-elect’s aggression against mainstream TV networks and newspapers, which they hope will whip up support among those already distrustful of the media.”

For those unfamiliar with British politics, it is hard to stress just how unlike Trump the soft-spoken and media-averse Corbyn is in all respects. That his media managers are modeling a style of political communication that demands brash aggression and almost continual attention to a social media feed suggests a degree of desperation. And it forces an acknowledgement that the mechanics of modern political communication are truly bipartisan.

By changing the rules, quite literally, of engagement, Trump is forcing political coverage to merge with media and technology coverage, too. That the dominant post-election story was not of stuffed ballot boxes or broken voting machines but fake news and Russian hacking indicates how the landscape has changed. The two places where the press was least effective were on the ground at voter level in the marginal swing states and in cyberspace.

Politicians have always seen their personas and policies shaped by the medium that serves them best. But with Trump, we seem to be in new territory. That terrain is mired not only in an interest in how media can serve his political ambitions, but a fusion of presentation and political strategy. The trajectory that started with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s use of the radio for fireside chats–and continued with the Age of Television–is reaching its natural conclusion with Trump and the real-time social Web. To cover him, and his presidency, we need to understand the platform on which he stands as not just a vector but a political ideology.

Emily Bell is a frequent CJR contributor and the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Previously, she oversaw digital publishing at The Guardian.