Trump’s showmanship poses growing challenge for Clinton, media

This image released by Sony Pictures Entertainment shows Dr. Oz, left, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during a taping of "The Dr. Oz Show," in New York. The show will air on Thursday, Sept. 15. (Sony Pictures Entertainment via AP)

In any other year, it might seem a bizarre spectacle: a reality TV star presidential candidate going on a celebrity doctor’s syndicated talk show to discuss a letter from a physician whose previous assessment had been widely mocked on TV and online.

In 2016, though, the airing of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s sit-down with Dr. Mehmet Oz Thursday was a top story for the better part of two days.

In part, the attention was a natural progression from the recent health troubles of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and growing questions about both candidates’ medical records. But it also had the feel of a ratings-driven stunt, promoted for days beforehand and teased with a short clip released Wednesday.

“It does make one roll one’s eyes, but I think it’s business as usual,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

At a pivotal moment in the interview, Trump polled the audience before whipping out a letter from his doctor detailing his recent physical, which his campaign had said hours earlier would not be revealed on the show.

Once word got out that Trump gave Oz the letter, potentially damaging headlines about Trump’s business conflicts were quickly crowded out of cable news shows by interviews with random audience members who gave conflicting accounts of exactly how much Trump weighs.

Democrats have grown frustrated by the seemingly breathless coverage of Trump’s every move and the double standard they see between expectations of the two nominees.

“Rather than call the Dr. Oz stunt what it is – a blatant dodging of public scrutiny – the media has become intoxicated by his reality show-esque campaign presence,” said Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies.

“It’s time to recognize that there’s a big difference between being transparent and acting transparent,” he said. “Trump is certainly in the latter camp, but in the media-driven environment our politics now sustains on, it’s becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between the two.”

Dr. Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University and author of “Politics on Demand: The Effects of 24 Hour News on American Politics,” said Trump still benefits from “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

“The bar is set differently for Trump because he’s not a politician,” she said.

His main selling points are his lack of experience and his pre-existing celebrity status, but there has been very little policy for the media to report on and analyze.

“You have to cover a political candidate who has eschewed every existing benchmark of running for office, and cover that candidate as fairly as you can, while Hillary Clinton brings with her nothing but policy and nothing but experience and nothing but a reputation as a political actor,” Dagnes said.

That dynamic makes for entertaining and exciting campaign coverage, but not necessarily informative and substantive coverage.

Following 15 months of record-setting primary debate rating, constant live coverage of rallies, and breaking news coverage of Trump’s tweets, the Dr. Oz interview is only the latest example of this presidential campaign bleeding into entertainment.

Some experts estimated that Trump received $2 billion worth of free media coverage throughout the campaign, something he has embraced while frequently boasting about the ratings his appearances garnered. He even hosted “Saturday Night Live” last fall, which is rare for a candidate to do while they are running.

“Trump is somebody who has been particularly willing to exploit these venues, and of course the venues have been more than happy to be exploited,” Thompson said.

This blurring of lines between politics and entertainment is not as new as it may feel, but it has reached new levels in 2016.

“Presidential politics is popular culture in every sense of the definition,” Thompson said.

With their decades in the public eye and their campaigns dominating 24-hour news channels for months, Trump and Clinton probably have higher name recognition than most music artists. It would be strange if they were not utilizing the popular communications mediums of their time.

“Presidents used to communicate using the technology of the railroad Then they started using the microphone when radio was developed,” Thompson said.

Television has played a vital role in campaigns for decades, according to Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at Purdue University and author of “Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.” John F. Kennedy used TV to turn himself into a celebrity in 1960, a feat Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton would later attempt to replicate.

“Entertainment is really at the center of how they’re communicating and trying to shape the national media narrative,” she said.

Clinton and Obama, in particular, have “used entertainment to have substantive conversations,” according to Brownell. Those efforts coincided with a rise of more substantive entertainment programming with hosts like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Thompson pointed to Nixon going on the sketch comedy show “Laugh In” during the 1968 campaign as one of the early examples of a candidate using TV to reach out to specific demographics.

With technology and culture changing and audiences fragmenting to different outlets and mediums as a result, entertainment shows increasingly provide a safe opportunity for a candidate to connect with audiences who do not watch news networks.

As a sitting president, Barack Obama understands this and has appeared on all kinds of TV and internet programming. From late night talk shows to online comedy to shows like “Running Wild with Bear Grylls.” He has recorded an interview for the season premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” airing later this month.

“Trump did not create this environment,” Thompson said.

However, Dagnes sees Trump’s use of entertainment outlets as different from past candidates.

“What had been happening before was that political candidates had been using entertainment media in their campaigncontorting themselves into these entertainment roles in order to reach a segment of the American public who may not be paying attention to politics,” she said.

“That’s not what Trump is doing,” she added. “Trump is using the media in order to not only advertise himself as a brand, and that brand includes not being a politician, but he’s also not self-deprecating, he’s not trying to show he’s a jovial sort.”

The current 24-hour media market is well-suited to a candidate who has, as Dagnes put it, “no impulse control and a megaphone.” He will not let any insult pass unanswered and the media can count on his responses to any slight to generate fresh headlines.

According to Brownell, Trump has built on what previous candidates did, but he utilizes entertainment to highlight his personality.

“His predecessors have used entertainment as a tool. He has used it as central to his strategy, not just one of the tools in his toolbox,” she said.

Trump’s straddling of the line between celebrity and candidate has created challenges for the media that reporters are still struggling with less than two months before Election Day.

“When somebody does not run on a specific set of policies, ideological foundations, partisan stands, it’s very difficult to cover that person through a lens of politics,” Dagnes said, “so what you’re left with is discussing the candidate’s personality, because that’s what they’re giving you.”

In this case, that personality is also virulently critical of the press.

“He’s not the first person who jumped up and said, ‘Boy, the media sucks,’ but now he’s saying it the most clearly and with the largest microphone.”

Layer that hostility from him and his base on top of the public’s already-low opinion of the press and Trump’s tendency to make false statements, and Dagnes said “it becomes an untenable position to try and cover him.”

A campaign focused on Trump’s style of entertainment and celebrity might put Clinton at a disadvantage.

“I think she’s having a real hard time with it and I can understand why,” Dagnes said, noting that Clinton has become increasingly vocal about the different standards she and Trump are held to. There may not be much she can do about that, though.

When Trump’s Republican rivals stooped to his level of insults and bombast during the primaries, they often seemed petty and unpresidential.

“Trump is having a gunfight. You don’t bring a knife to it,” Dagnes said.

Nobody has been able to compete with him when it comes to showmanship, and trying could cause more harm than good for Clinton.

“It’s really out of her wheelhouse, so it doesn’t look very authentic, and it doesn’t jive as well with her persona,” she said.

Clinton has other advantages, according to Brownell. While Trump represents the “shock and awe” of reality TV, her campaign brings more Hollywood-style polished production to her videos, speeches, and entertainment show appearances.

“Her production team is much more successful and sophisticated in their approach than Donald Trump is,” she said.

With days running out before the election and three hotly-anticipated debates ahead, voters can probably expect Trump to press the entertainment value of his campaign as far as he can and keep the fight in his arena as much as possible.

“He is in part a creature of television, he wants television ratings and he wants television exposure, and he’s going to try and get that spotlight no matter what,” Dagnes said.

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