Columns, Opinions

Vilsan ’19: Media hypocrisy under Trump

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 8, 2018

I like to occasionally browse the Instagram accounts of conservative activists. It’s a guilty pleasure of mine to get a peak into the mentality of the other side of the aisle, especially when it comes to politically-active individuals in my age group. And you know what I’ve learned from this Instagram education? Conservatives don’t care about Trump’s latest outrageous tweet or the Stormy Daniels affair. But there are a lot of posts about the booming economy, low unemployment rates and impressive gains against the Islamic State. And I have to say — I don’t read a lot about these achievements in the mainstream media.

Don’t get me wrong, I think President Trump’s attacks on the press are despicable, and I believe journalists have an important role to play in holding elected officials accountable and informing the public. I also think that stories regarding Trump’s ridiculous use of Twitter are important to fully understand the man that the American public has elected president. Yet, I have to admit, conservatives have a point when they complain that the mainstream media refuses to give credit where it’s due.

In particular, the media isn’t working to discriminate between the kinds of stories it runs about Trump. Instead, we have a hailstorm of coverage that is often critical of Trump, but not in a constructive, coherent way. That is to say, the White House, its attendant scandals and Trump’s personal improprieties receive the bulk of media coverage, as opposed to the workings of federal agencies, domestic issues and the economy. The average consumer of American news is left drowning in politics, without an informed grasp of policy. The result is an ever-growing dichotomy between conservative media outlets, who praise Trump religiously, and mainstream outlets, whose critiques of Trump focus too much on his personality — a dichotomy that leaves no room for fact-based debate or centrist, moderate politics.

According to a Pew Research Center report, five topics — immigration, health care, Trump’s political skills, U.S.-Russia relations and appointments — accounted for two thirds of the media’s coverage of the Trump administration. On the subject of the latter three topics, the media almost exclusively assessed Trump’s leadership and character, totally ignoring the ideological and policy foundations of his positions. Further, the media has concentrated more on Trump’s leadership and character — and judged him more harshly on those fronts — than it judged former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In the meantime, news about the economy and Trump’s aggressive posture toward the Islamic State have been lumped into the one-third of “other” stories covered.

What we’re witnessing is a fundamental change in how the media covers the president and the White House. Of course, Trump is a different kind of president, but members of his base aren’t necessarily wrong when they accuse the media of unfair or biased reporting. According to many Trump voters, their candidate delivered on many of his promises, in spite of grave predictions to the contrary, and these achievements aren’t being forthrightly acknowledged by the mainstream press.

For example, although Trump’s actual role in the economy is contested, I think he can legitimately take credit for the downward trajectory of the Islamic State. The terrorist group was in control of 23,300 square miles of Iraq and Syria at the time that Trump took office, and the territory under their control has since shrunk to only 9,300 square miles. Coalition forces conducted 5,000 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in August 2017, the highest monthly figure in three years. In sum, the president delivered on his promise to give his generals more control over the fight against the Islamic State, and this strategy has paid off.

But the media has devoted a tiny percentage of their coverage to this development — even though they were quick to praise Obama for his military victories. Consider the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. In the following two days, the raid that killed him, ordered by Obama, constituted 89 percent of media coverage. And the media focused mostly on the logistics and execution of the raid, not its policy implications. Obama immediately claimed credit for the assassination, even though the raid could not have taken place without the diligent work of the Bush administration. Few media outlets challenged this premise. Today, though, the media has reacted to Trump’s celebration of the Islamic State’s routing with skepticism, eagerly pointing out that Trump inherited his counterterror strategy from Obama. This double standard has — rightfully — annoyed Trump’s supporters.

It is a well-known fact that people on both sides of the aisle often use the media as an echo chamber for their own beliefs. And it is true that Trump is an unusual president, whose scandals and statements have no precedent. Still, it’s clear that the mainstream media has formulated and applied a different of set of expectations to Trump — a set of expectations it has held for no other president in the past three decades. By focusing on Trump’s personality, and not his policy, the mainstream media has not provided a meaningfully holistic view of his presidency. And the mainstream media’s skewed coverage hurts the progressive cause, too, by arming the Resistance with juicy personal details instead of the policy prescriptions or information they need to undo Trump’s legacy.

Fabiana Vilsan ’19 can be reached at fabiana_vilsan@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.