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Trump says campaign is ‘struggle for survival’ against Clinton, media

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the South Florida Fairgrounds and Convention Center, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump declared himself an “existential threat” to the political establishment and the media it controls Thursday, devoting half of a speech at a Florida rally to excoriating the press.

“The clouds hanging over our government can be lifted, and replaced with a bright future, but it all depends on whether we let the New York Times decide our future, or whether we let the American people decide our future,” he said.

The news that raised Trump’s ire this time was reports Wednesday that several women have come forward alleging that he made unwanted sexual advances on them. He claimed that the stories, in addition to being false, are intended to help his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

“These attacks are orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies… Without the press, she is absolutely zero,” Trump said, while providing no evidence of this collusion.

The speech elevated Trump’s constant attacks on the press to a new level, casting reporters as sinister forces willing to destroy the country to stop him.

“Their agenda is to elect Crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost, at any price, no matter how many lives they destroy… For them, nothing at all is out of bounds. This is a struggle for the survival of our nation and this will be our last chance to save it,” he said.

Trump has threatened to sue the New York Times over its reporting about two of these alleged victims. The paper rejected a demand for a retraction from his attorney Thursday by arguing that these accusations do no more damage to his reputation than his own words already have.

In particular, the Times’ attorney pointed to a 2005 recording made public last Friday in which Trump “bragged about his non-consensual sexual touching of women.”

Trump complained that the controversy over those words and subsequent allegations of inappropriate behavior and comments has drowned out reporting on new information about Clinton’s campaign.

However, the political damage inflicted by some of the thousands of emails released by WikiLeaks from the hacked account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta made the front pages of the Washington Post and New York Times Thursday.

Over the weekend and earlier this week, there is no doubt that negative reporting on Trump far outweighed reports on the Podesta emails.

According to the conservative Media Research Center, between the release of an email that contained excerpts from Clinton’s paid Wall Street speeches on Friday and the debate on Sunday night, broadcast news shows devoted 103 minutes to coverage of Trump’s 2005 recording and eight minutes to Clintons’ speeches. By the end of the day Monday, that disparity had grown to a 15-to-1 ratio.

“I think the general perception, especially among conservatives, is that it has been [unfair], but given the nature of the video and the accusations of the women claiming that he assaulted them, it was always going to be headline news,” said Don Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media, another conservative media watchdog group.

To a degree, Trump brought the scrutiny he now faces on himself by making Bill Clinton’s infidelity and unproven claims of assault against him part of the campaign, according to Jim Naureckas of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, a liberal media watchdog group.

“Trump himself made it clear that he thought that Hillary Clinton's handling of charges of sexual wrongdoing against her husband in the 1990s should be a key, even decisive issue,” Naureckas said.

Journalism experts say there are several reasons why Trump’s 2005 comments and the new sexual assault allegations against him are garnering more media coverage than the daily dumps of Podesta emails from WikiLeaks.

“The stuff coming out about Trump is very visceral,” said Fred Bayles, a former journalist and director of the Statehouse program at Boston University. “It’s very accessible. It’s easy to portray.”

In contrast, the Podesta emails are a step removed, few of them include any of Clinton’s own words, and nothing her aides are saying compares to the other candidate himself bragging about sexual assault on tape.

“They’re just not as salacious,” Bayles said.

The Trump campaign has tried to steer the press toward the emails, with Trump and running mate Mike Pence bringing them up at rallies and his staff sending out several statements a day about them.

Despite their outrage, there have been few headline-worthy developments.

Allegations that Clinton aides expressed anti-Catholic views and that there was communication between the campaign and the Justice Department impacting the FBI investigation of Clinton have been debated and discussed, but much of the other material released so far has been typical campaign communication.

“One could argue this is a variation of locker room talk among political operatives,” Bayles said, repeating the phrase Trump has used to defend his comments.

Trump must also contend with the reality that the claims against him are more interesting for readers and viewers, or at least the press believes they are.

“The problem for Trump is that the coverage of him is based on the fact that the media feels that the controversies surrounding him are far more serious than anything in the emails from WikiLeaks and make for higher ratings and more visits to their websites,” Irvine said.

Although Trump asserts the media is protecting Clinton, her campaign has complained about some of the email coverage, arguing that the illegal hacking of Podesta’s account and the apparent Russian involvement merit more attention.

Bayles said the source of the documents does matter, but concerns about the motives and methods of the leakers should not stop the media from reporting on newsworthy details within them. The Clinton campaign’s unwillingness to confirm their authenticity makes it more difficult than verifying an audio and video recording of Trump.

“In terms of vetting the information, these emails are hard to vet and they come from a sort of mysterious source,” he said.

If media outlets can confirm the emails are genuine, they absolutely should report them, according to Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

“Clinton is running for president and there is no zone of privacy,” he said.

Naureckas said the emails are a legitimate story, and one that provides unique insight into a presidential campaign, but he warned against trying to equate it with the allegations against Trump.

“One should not give readers the impression that a candidate revealed to have crafted public statements for political effect is the same sort of thing as a candidate being accused of sexual assault,” he said.

Attacking the media never hurts in a Republican primary and public opinion of the press about as negative as it is of Congress, but experts say Trump is just riling up his existing supporters with this rhetoric, not expanding his appeal to general election voters.

“Bashing the press will play well with voters who are already supporting Trump,” Kennedy said. “But I don’t see how it can work as a strategy to win over voters who are undecided or leaning in Clinton’s direction.”

Irvine said there is little Trump could say that would improve his relationship with the media even if he wanted to, and the aggressive campaign against the press resonates with the Republican base and reinforces Trump’s anti-establishment credibility.

“At this point, he has nothing to lose by doing so,” he said. “The media is mostly against him anyway, so trying to be nice to them really won't change their minds.”

According to Bloomberg Politics, the Trump campaign’s plan for the remaining three-and-a-half weeks of the race is to call attention to allegations of sexual impropriety and assault by Bill Clinton. In addition to the three accusers who accompanied Trump to the debate on Sunday, Trump advisers claim more women have come forward.

Trump’s argument for the relevance of Bill Clinton’s personal behavior to his wife’s presidential bid is that she has tried to silence and discredit his accusers. His campaign has offered little to support that claim so far, and it may be undercut by his own attack on the women accusing him of similar acts.

Bayles expects any new allegations against Bill Clinton will get less coverage than questions about Trump’s behavior because Trump is on the ballot and Clinton is not. Also, Bill’s reputation as a womanizer has been well established.

“A lot of the stuff that Trump brings up about the Clintons has been fought over for so many years,” he said.

Kennedy also doubts future allegations about Bill Clinton’s behavior will be covered as prominently as Trump’s new accusers.

“Bill Clinton is not running for anything,” he said, “His personal misbehavior did great damage to him at the time… But they are now 20-year-old stories about someone whose political career is behind him.”

The prospect of the presidential campaign devolving into two sides trading decades-old rape accusations is not likely to bring out the best in American politics or journalism.

“I don’t know how much lower it can go, but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a bottom in this cycle and I’d hate to see what it might be in 2020,” Bayles said.

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