Media spreads Trump's anti-media message

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves as he leaves a news conference in New York, Tuesday, May 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Donald Trump's complaints about the media continued to draw widespread coverage from major news outlets Wednesday, amplifying the presumptive Republican nominee's message even as journalists pushed back against his allegations.

Ostensibly, Trump's press conference the previous day was intended to address media inquiries about what happened to money he collected for veterans at a fundraiser he held in January to compete with a presidential debate that he skipped. However, Trump spent much of his time complaining about the scrutiny he was getting over a charitable act.

Despite having frequently boasted about it since the fundraiser, at one point presenting a veterans group with a massive novelty check on camera, he insisted that he did not want credit for having made the donations and was only talking about it because the "unfair" and "dishonest" media forced him. Trump blasted reporters for demanding details about how much money he raised and what he did with it, calling one a journalist a "sleaze."

Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at Notre Dame University, observed a contradiction in Trump's comments, that he was simultaneously criticizing the media and taking advantage of the megaphone that they provides him.

"Donald Trump is dancing on a two-edged sword," he said. "At the same time that he criticizes the media as vociferously as anyone in American politics ever could, he also is the beneficiary of almost unlimited coverage by that same media."

Trump's skillful use of the media helped him rise above 16 other candidates in the Republican primaries, often receiving more coverage than all of his opponents combined even as he complained that he was not being treated fairly.

"Trump has been crying about negative media coverage from the outset of his campaign," said Bruce Evensen, director of the journalism program at DePaul University. "He fully understands that he is a creature of the media. He has been enveloped in a media cocoon from the beginning of his campaign."

While it may be valid to argue over whether the media subjects all political candidates to too much scrutiny, Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, rejected the notion that Trump is being treated any differently than others.

The press conference Tuesday was a media event created by Trump in response to a live media event that he produced in January to compete with another live media event.

"Donald Trump is both the talent and the producer, and for him to say that he's being covered unfairly is an astonishingly ironic thing, at the very least, for him to say," Sesno said.

William Benoit, a professor of communication studies at Ohio University, believes Trump does face an unusual amount of critical coverage, but he sees legitimate reasons for that based on Trump's behavior.

"The media focuses most attention on the front-runner and Trump has led the pack for more time than any other Republican candidate," he said. "Trump makes many statements that many, not all, consider outrageous. He is not the only candidate to make provocative statements, but he does it more than anyone else."

Trump's comments will help reinforce the theme he has been pushing in interviews and rallies for months that the political press is dishonest and any negative information they report about him is somehow unfair.

Rush Limbaugh praised Trump's tough talk on his radio show Tuesday, claiming Republicans have wanted to see a candidate "take on the media" the way Trump did for years. He also applauded Trump's manipulation of the media by "getting a bunch of people that literally hate him to help him out."

According to Schmuhl, Trump's talking points will resonate with the large percentage of voters who do not trust the media.

"Most of the criticism that's being leveled at the media finds a receptive audience among the people who are supporting Donald Trump," he said.

Evensen said running against the perceived liberal bias of the media has long been a winning strategy on the right.

"For years, right-leaning talk show hosts have deplored the perceived unfairness of the 'lame stream' and 'drive-by' media," he said. "So his supporters are used to hearing this message."

Sesno observed that Trump's latest comments about the media came within days of launching attacks on the credibility of a federal judge and on his own political party. He said the pattern of trashing institutions like the judiciary and the free press is troubling.

"What is he saying and conveying about his respect for core institutions that for hundreds of years have made this country what it is?" he asked.

Media outlets may need to weigh how they cover Trump's events if all he does is insult and undermine them. Much as Trump benefits from his media coverage, the media benefits from covering him by getting more viewers, even when he is criticizing them.

"He clearly knows how to use the media to his advantage and that has been important over the past year as he has solidified his political support," Schmuhl said. "The question is, whether the media will continue to devote so much attention to him if they are merely serving as his punching bag."

Trump's criticism puts reporters in an awkward position. By defending themselves, they risk becoming the story, but they also cannot let false attacks on their integrity go uncontested.

"What is their responsibility in reporting the campaign? To serve citizens with news they need to know that makes democracy and self-governance possible," Evensen said. "That social responsibility of journalists is not to ceaselessly defend themselves in a cage match with Trump."

Cable networks devoted five hours of coverage to previewing, airing, and dissecting Trump's press conference on Tuesday, according to Media Matters for America. They only spent about one hour total talking about 1,000 pages of documents from a Trump University lawsuit that were unsealed that afternoon.

Some in the media recognized that Trump may have been trying to divert their attention from the documents, but they continued talking about the press conference anyway.

"If the collective take away from Trump's presser is that he hates media and the media spends time fretting about this, then he's met his goal for today," tweeted "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd.

Even if reporters believe that they are playing into Trump's hands, that does not mean they can ignore his comments.

"I don't think the reporters should make decisions about what to discuss based on what a candidate wants," Benoit said. "If it is deemed newsworthy, it should be discussed."

Schmuhl cautioned that news outlets reporting on the press conference have been walking a fine line in covering Trump and responding to him.

"After the press conference yesterday, there was an enormous amount of coverage about Trump's statements directed at the media," he said. "You can overdo that just as Donald Trump can overdo his own reactions to the coverage he's receiving. The story is Trump and not the media."

Evensen criticized reporters who have let Trump set the agenda for his own coverage.

"Too many reporters look like kids playing soccer," he said. "They're always running after the ball. Wherever Trump is playing the ball, that's the ball they're running after. They would be well served not playing Trump's game, but their own."

Tuesday's press conference is the latest example of a challenge the media faces in providing balanced coverage of Trump and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

"Trump is the kind of figure who attracts attention and the public wants to know what on earth he might say in his next sentence," Schmuhl said. "In that respect, the media tend to cover him because they know that there is an appetite for what it is that he is saying. He is improvisational and he is clearly making up whatever he's going to say on the spot."

Clinton, meanwhile, is more scripted and predictable. If she wants to compete with Trump for camera time, that may need to change.

"Donald Trump has been the beneficiary of probably more attention than any other presidential candidate in American history," Schmuhl said. "Hillary Clinton has to figure out a way to break through and to gain the kind of attention that will make people turn away from Trump and what he's doing and saying."

Sesno said Clinton's inaccessibility and unwillingness to hold press conferences is "inexcusable." It also makes it difficult to provide equal coverage when one candidate is speaking publicly constantly while the other is "bubble-wrapped."

"The networks have a very important point here," Sesno said. "If you have one candidate who says yes all the time and one candidate who says no, do you ignore the candidate who says yes?"

Ratings play a role in coverage decisions too, but Benoit suggested that Trump's frequent controversial statements simply make him more newsworthy than Clinton.

"I think Trump, given his behavior, is just more interesting than Clinton," Benoit said.

Clinton did phone interviews with CNN and MSNBC Tuesday to respond to Trump, an indication that she may be loosening up her approach to the media, but she and her aides have still been evasive about when she might hold a news conference of her own.

While Trump made it clear Tuesday that he has no intention of toning down his combative attitude toward the press even if he wins the election, it remains to be seen whether journalists will continue to play along and give him a free venue to broadcast his insults.

"He's a master at manipulating the same media that he criticizes so roundly," Schmuhl said, "and within the next few weeks, if not months, the media will have to decide if they will continue to take the bait that he keeps offering."

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