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Politics in the Echo Chamber: How Trump Becomes President

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Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Image by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Should Donald John Trump become the 45th President of the USA, there is no telling what the implications will be nor where the world will lurch to as a result. What we can be sure of though, if he wins, is why. The truth is that Trump has gamed and framed the media and the lesson for all of us is to understand how that has been done and what does that mean.

Candidate Trump has developed a campaign structure in which policy is overwhelmed by PR. His campaign has further devalued what we think of as the usual currency of political success – actual policy and ideas – and banked on more ephemeral and shallow coinage.

The mainstream news media has lapped up the performance, offering Trump blanket coverage even when he was considered a rank no-hoper earlier in the campaign. His combination of colour and movement has attracted the cameras and grab-watchers like children to an iPhone screen.

What has emerged is something we may call the Trump Bubble. The phenomenon has become self-inflating and impervious as each apparent gaffe, insult, outright lie or idle death threat has both enhanced his appeal even as it generates greater media attention. Brickbats from political grandees and public figures become bouquets as the tricks of light in the Trump Bubble work their dark magic.

It’s an echo-chamber dynamic that needs closer study.

If, as it appears, this is the shape of news media into the future, those of us looking to media to inform our decision-making will need to adapt, particularly if we are looking to generate progressive and open public discourse..

The Trump campaign’s undeniable media success attests to the media’s receptiveness to Trump’s style of communications. His ability to run out his program in a kind of ticket-tape of one-liners, over-the-top bigotry and misogyny, and copy which is devoid of context, nuance, justification or relevance, presents a template that fits neatly into digital news media’s need for short bursts of de-constructed and de-contextualised narrative, weighting more towards short-attention span entertainment value and away from substance.

Popular media theory has it that mainstream news media frames a view of reality which reflects what it deems important, valuable or useful and that this in turn is framed by news consumers based on their own parameters and world view. The media therefore sets the agenda in public discourse through the choices it makes, concious and sub-conscious, institutional and individual.

Applying this to the Trump phenomenon, the theory runs that mainstream news media is framing a view of Trump which is, if not openly supportive, then certainly less than threatening (until recently that is, as news media realises it has created a Frankenstein).

This is indeed apparent. But, that’s only part of the picture and it’s fair to ask who is framing whom?

Rather than look simply at how the media frames Trump, it is useful to look at how the Trump campaign is in fact framing the media.

Mainstream news media is obliged to work within the constraints of digital communications. In journalistic terms, the digitisation of media has reduced contextualisation, increased content redundancy and shallowed the depth of reporting.

As the clickbait obsessions of advertisers and SEO algorithms have taken hold, key words and key terms and news feed aggregators have been assembled around a smaller core of issues. Headlines have become more hubristic as they must grab the reader/viewer/listener quicker. Broad stokes and binary dynamics – reflecting the very technology on which it is based – ensures news in the digital era needs to be more simplistic and grab-filled than we have become used to.

Tabloidisation is a term we might use to describe it. But it’s beyond that as tabloids at least pitch low-brow and are often tongue-in-cheek. New news media, even the high end mastheads and media producers, serve this limited and clunky fare as the stuff of high-end national debate and of global importance. And they expect us to take it seriously

News media is no longer seeking to objectively inform and analyse. It is now in the business of serving up pitches to hit the Google searches and facebook feeds of the widest number of people. The lowest common denominator covers the widest territory most cheaply.

Enter Trump.

Trump and his campaign managers have given news media what it wants: shallow grabs, unsubstantiated claims, insults, attacks and all the corny drama and theatre you can fit on a tablet screen and view in your coffee break.

Trump is, therefore, framing the mainstream news media. Or, to put it another way, his campaign is providing the frame for the news media to subsequently frame him.

The mainstream news media accepts this because it has decreased its capacity to do the framing itself. Smaller newsrooms, less staff and tighter margins have ensured that news media in the digital age largely relies on what it is given. Increasingly, this is from press releases and from topics framed by a PR industry that has grown as the media industry has declined. Add this reality to the technical constraints of the digital medium noted above and you have a culture seeking the kind of diet offered by Donald Trump and his campaign.

It’s unlikely this has been done consciously. It’s more a case study in aligned agendas: the media’s for a certain kind of content in the digital age and those of Trump’s campaign for publicity (perhaps not even to become President). As such, it’s less about the Trump camp’s brilliant strategising and more about lucking into a moment in media history and almost absent-mindedly fashioning a winning model for political campaign media communications in the digital age.

As we look upon how media works and is to work in future, the Trump campaign offers a sobering perspective. Not only should we question the frames used my media outlets, we also need to more closely consider the issue of agency and to be more aware of how the media relies on already framed material.

If Trump is to win, he will do it by successfully giving the media its perfect storm and by reaping the benefits or the wall-to-wall media coverage that has resulted. His nomination at the Republican convention in July provides a searing critique of the news media that gave him the space and the spotlight. If the world is to be subjected to a President Trump, it will be to a significant degree, because mainstream news media, in the US at least, has enabled his ascendency.

While this realisation seems to have belatedly set off an attempt to reject the frame created by Trump and to adopt a more critical and factual analysis of his candidature, his ability to game and frame news media has no doubt been a lesson to all with deep pockets and the kind of loose agendas that need a headline hungry news media on which to gain traction.

The Trump phenomenon highlights a media culture in which those with the requisite resources and access, and the necessarily attention-grabbing agendas, are increasingly the only things we see in the frame that defines our world and our future. That’s really bad news.

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James Rose has taught at the School of Journalism at Griffith University, Australia. 

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