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The media’s obsession with rhetoric

President Donald Trump during a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the East Room of the White House on Friday, March 17, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Leigh Vogel/Sipa USA/TNS)

In a column I wrote earlier this semester, I alluded to the strong correlation between rhetoric and policy. The 16-month election cycle involved almost only rhetoric. Trump’s use of language was deliberate and the media was happy to play along. But the media’s decision is in no way a justification for further complacency. The over $2 billion in free air time that the mainstream news networks paid as lip service to Trump ended up biting them in the end, allowing Trump to get the last laugh. What is equally shocking is that the media continues to talk about his rhetoric, whether it be his late night Twitter rants or his self-congratulatory insincerity.

CNN’s Jake Tapper provided an impressive and equally persuasive counterargument to an idea I have been professing for over a year last Friday on Real Time with Bill Maher. I had always thought, and had written in this newspaper, that Trump garnered support not in spite of what he said, but because of it. It seemed only natural for me to assume that the millions of undecided citizens who voted for Trump in November became attracted to his politically incorrect personality. On Real Time, Tapper argued the opposite. “I think a lot of people voted for Trump, not because of that stuff, but despite that stuff…I don’t think they heard the Access Hollywood tape and they said, ‘Oh yeah, I want that in the White House.’” That is, even after the harassment scandal, his sexist remarks toward Megyn Kelly, the pride he took in never having changed a diaper and more, he garnered key support in the areas that mattered most. The voters found it important to look beyond his rhetoric. Trump couldn’t construct a platform on prior decisions and had no choice but to run on his diction.

Trump prevailed in spite of most campaign calculations. Trump’s rhetoric isn’t going to change. We know this because President Trump is behaving almost identically as candidate Trump. However, I find it shocking that the media continues to find this news.

The mainstream media manages to turn a blind eye to covering policy. Instead, it is fixated on press secretary Sean Spicer’s briefings. His briefings are receiving ratings higher than daytime television programs like “General Hospital” and “The Bold and The Beautiful.” Of course, from the outset, the national news media and the Trump administration got off on the wrong foot. This was in large part to Spicer’s inaccurate comments regarding the size of the audience present for Trump’s inauguration. Trump lied and Spicer complied. The media lied too, when Zeke Miller of Time Magazine falsely reported that the bust of Martin Luther King had been removed from the oval office. Miller was called out, properly castigated and eventually apologized on Twitter. These two lies aren’t the same. We may never know whether Trump did this deliberately or accidentally, although history suggests it was intentional. I’m still curious as to why we care. Lucian Wintrich, the White House correspondent for The Gateway Pundit, offered the following take on the whole situation: “Everyone knows Obama had a bigger crowd at his inauguration. Literally, who gives a s***? It’s just pretension and condescension, on the media’s part, to make a big deal of it.” Perhaps Trump said it to provide yet another distraction. I have said before that rhetoric informs policy. However, certain rhetoric informs policy, but not all of it. In a recent poll conducted by Emerson College, results showed that Americans trust the current administration more than they trust the media. As troubling as this is, there are reasons for this.

Earlier on in the same interview, Tapper made reference to the conspiracy theories that Trump had peddled during the campaign as a prime example of his lying. “It’s not just, if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor, it’s conspiracy theories, based on nothing, that have members of his own party distancing themselves from him, and it’s combined with an attempt to discredit the entire fourth estate. We’re all fake news except for Fox & Friends. This combination of falsehoods—three to five million illegal votes, Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill Kennedy.” Then when the audience begins to laugh, Tapper responds by saying, “This is just the news.” This is where Tapper (and Maher) are wrong. This isn’t the news because it’s filler, adding nothing to the national discourse. Each news network undergoes a vetting process, some more rigorous than others. Tapper himself cited these “stories” as examples of conspiracy theories as a more recent trend in presidential politics. Conspiracy theories aren’t news and they don’t deserve legitimacy because they’re said by a political figure. It’s for the same reason that CNN doesn’t break stories that appear on Stormfront and InfoWars. Those sites, by definition, circulate fake news. The public turns to the mainstream media in the hopes of finding a heavy filter.

During the campaign, Trump never had a super PAC and spent a fraction of his opponent’s amount. Clinton outspent Trump in every category. Trump received over $2 billion in free airtime from the mainstream media. He didn’t need to spend money to get a service that was given to him for free. The media shouldn’t stop covering Trump. But considering that we have a TV star in the White House, it might be opportune to strive for substance over sensationalism and scandal.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at isimon@umass.edu.

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