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Donald Trump: Covering the Most Popular Sideshow in Town

by on October 24, 2015

Donald Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign has raised important questions about how journalists and their outlets should cover his candidacy. It would be easy to cover Trump as a sideshow, or more harshly as a joke, if he wasn’t polling so well. Donald Trump’s candidacy may appear to be a sideshow, but that sideshow is the most popular show in town. Trump has sustained a lead on nearly all national republican presidential polls since he announced his intent to run. It is unlikely that Trump will win even the republican nomination, but there is no question that his chances are legitimate.

This raises the question of what makes a legitimate candidate. Is Trump’s legitimacy born out of his real chance to win the nomination? Do journalists have to cover the Trump candidacy seriously because of his poll numbers? Does Trump’s (often racist and offensive) bombastic rhetoric make him an illegitimate candidate despite his popularity? Perhaps most importantly – how do you ethically cover a sideshow?

The Huffington Post made the decision to classify coverage of Trump’s campaign as part of their entertainment coverage. Their statement said, “After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.” The Huffington Post seems to question Trump’s intent. They say that they aren’t taking the bait. They see Trump’s candidacy as an extension of his celebrity. He is only in it for the media attention.

But I’m not sure that is correct. Trump is driven by ego and would love nothing more than to be president. I don’t think that separates him from many other politicians – especially politicians who want to be president.

Jay Rosen applauded the Huffington Post for their decision. Rosen said, “Newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can’t even take the guy seriously? Tell us!” Rosen thinks that journalists should be allowed to make their own decisions on political candidates. He doesn’t feel that they should be forced to give legitimacy to candidates that they can’t take seriously.

I agree with Rosen’s criticism of “the view from nowhere.” Journalists should insert themselves more into their stories. Journalists should surrender themselves to the truth. They shouldn’t worry about being criticized for not being objective. They have no obligation to give equal (or unequal) consideration to factually inaccurate or morally repugnant views in the name of objectivity.

But I don’t agree with the Huffington Post’s decision to classify coverage of Trump’s campaign as entertainment. There are no strict guidelines or criteria that they present for why Trump or possible future candidates should not be considered legitimate candidates. Their reasoning seems to solely be that he’s Donald Trump. He’s obviously a clown. We aren’t going to give him legitimacy – but we’ll still cover him because being in the Trump business is a good place to be.

If saying racist, inflammatory or offensive things meant that a candidate is not legitimate then there would be no legitimate republican candidates for president. If the Huffington Post wanted to say that they aren’t giving serious coverage to all republican presidential candidates then I would find that more acceptable. But I fail to see what separates Trump from this field of candidates. As Hillary Clinton said – the rest of the field is, “just like Trump without the pizzaz and the hair.” Trump’s outspokenness is a bit more extreme than the rest of the field, but the only thing that makes him different is that his voice is much louder. Everything Trump says gets media coverage.

Trump may be a “celebrity” but he isn’t the only candidate in the field that isn’t a traditional politician. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson mirrors Trump in a lot of ways. Neither is a career politician. Both frequently say offensive things. And both are at the top of almost every national poll. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for Carson to receive different coverage than Trump.

The problem with much of the coverage of Trump’s campaign is that by categorizing him as a sideshow (or as a joke) – we fail to see that Trump is legitimately popular. He isn’t popular solely because he is a celebrity. He isn’t popular solely because he has a catchphrase. Trump’s poll numbers have been steadily rising since he entered the race. There are actual reasons why people like Donald Trump. They like Donald Trump as a politician. They like his platform. They like him more as they hear more of him. This may make some people uncomfortable. It may even frighten them. But it is true. Donald Trump is a legitimate candidate to win the republican nomination.

That doesn’t mean that journalists must be mouthpieces for the Trump campaign. They don’t have to condone his racism or bigotry. Their coverage of his candidacy can – and should be – critical. But covering Trump differently than the rest of the field doesn’t make sense. Donald Trump is a perfect poster boy for the Republican Party. He isn’t some outsider in the party. He is the embodiment of it. Trump represents much of what I feel is wrong with the Republican Party. He represents much of what I feel is wrong with America in general, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a legitimate candidate. He is very legitimate. A large portion of the American public just happens to disagree with me. I don’t understand how people can feel this way, but the evidence is shown every time a new poll is released. The more bombastic and offensive a candidate is – the better they fare.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is unique, but his platform is not. Donald Trump is the type of candidate that republican voters actively want to vote for in 2015. I don’t think that Trump will actually win the nomination, but that is challenged every time a new poll is released that shows support for Trump rising. Coverage of Trump should treat him seriously. It shouldn’t treat him as a joke. The most interesting thing about Trump’s candidacy is his legitimacy. That legitimacy is born out of the inconceivable support for Trump among many republican voters. Coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign should attempt to answer why that inconceivable support exists. It should turn a mirror towards those who support him. The results would be much more interesting than treating it as just entertainment.

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3 Comments
  1. I completely understand where you’re coming from and I think your post is really well-written and actually successfully persuaded me into thinking that Donald Trump, is, in fact, a legitimate candidate for presidency. Prior to reading this, I was in full support of the Huffington Post’s decision to categorize his candidacy with entertainment. Now, I still support it, just a little bit less. Yes, all candidates should be treated seriously, and if HP decides to diminish the legitimacy of one outlandish Republican, then they should do the same for all. And I agree, Trump is not any different from the other candidates in that they are all egotistical, confident, and power-driven leaders (maybe aside from Bernie Sanders). While his opinions are not unique, his method of vocalizing them are, and that’s what makes him so attention-worthy. I think that is what makes him noticeably different.

    While we also have a Republic neurosurgeon in the running, he is not a television personality who was primed and prepped for stardom. Although Trump has many conservative thoughts, shared with half of our population, he displays and vocalizes them in purposefully outlandish ways to gain attention. He has a very common political platform, but his strategies are formed in ways to entertain. Since running for presidency, Trump’s businesses are booming (http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/donald-trump-presidential-run-hotels) and he’s very aware of it. I believe that he is using his candidacy to market himself, and that is the bait that the Huffington Post refuses to take. Of course he’s marketing himself in a political way as well, but at the end of the day, Trump is a businessman, driven by greed and power, which again doesn’t make him too different than the other candidates. It is his entertainment-based deliverance of his points that makes him different. And we know it! The Republican debate attracted 23 million viewers, while the Democratic debate only hit 15.3 million, which was its highest-rated debate (http://money.cnn.com/2015/10/14/media/cnn-democratic-debate-ratings-record/). Why is it that the Republican debate gathered almost 50% more viewers? The answer is Donald Trump is fun to watch, even if a lot of us despise what he’s saying. I agree that regardless of whether or not we like him, we can’t disregard that he is gaining a lot of success as a presidential candidate (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/07/01/donald-trump-polls_n_7706964.html), and the HP knows that he is a qualified candidate, but they don’t want to bring even more attention to his celebrity status and experience as a television performer.

    • josephcurrier permalink

      Thank you for the feedback!

      The most difficult thing to assess about the Trump candidacy is his intent. It was the biggest hurdle in my thought of Trump as a legitimate candidate. The Huffington Post (perhaps correctly) assumes that Trump is largely running for the publicity it has brought him. And I think it is totally fair and it is undeniably a reason that Trump is running. But it is a reason for anyone that is running. Running for president raises the profile of any candidate. It increases their visibility. It gives politicians incredible publicity that will perhaps allow them to run for higher offices even if they fail in pursuit of their presidency. Trump’s motivations just happen to be more related to his businesses than his future political career. And I don’t like the idea of treating non-politicians differently than traditional political candidates even if Trump is undeniably a clown.

      The Huffington Post can obviously cover the Trump candidacy however they want. I assume their decision was also on some level a publicity stunt. But I think it is perhaps even more powerful if you treat Trump as a legitimate candidate. This field of candidates is so bad that even Trump fits in with them. It is almost propping up the rest of the field if you treat Trump as markedly different than them.

  2. I believe the debate on the Trump presidential campaign deserves another review as we move further into the election cycle and Trump’s rhetoric towards Muslims and foreign policy is becoming increasingly hostile. Trump’s legitimacy as a candidate cannot be denied as his viewpoints no matter how controversial clearly resonates with a substantial portion of the American public.

    I believe that journalists and news outlets that disagree with Trump’s views are well within their rights and able to present his campaign in a negative light while still remaining objective. This can be achieved through a heavy dose of analysts and interviews with those who do not share Trump’s views, and statistics that show the ineffectiveness of his proposed policies. In such a saturated electoral field the public can benefit from journalism that helps them make sense of each candidate but only when such opinions are rooted in fact.

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