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What Lessons Should the Media Learn From the 2016 Election?

Trump's campaign scandals ultimately benefited him in the 2016 election. That won't be the case in 2020.
Former presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, Frank Bruni offered an excellent summary of media failures regarding coverage of Donald Trump in 2016, and urged his colleagues not to make the same mistakes in 2020. Is it possible for the political media to follow this advice? And what would it look like?

According to Bruni, one of the political media's main failures in 2016 was that it was repeatedly drawn into covering Trump simply because he was a near-constant source of scandal and outrage. Trump has always seemed to believe that what matters most is that he's a source of conversation, no matter what shape that conversation takes. It's no coincidence, then, that he is prone to all sorts of outbursts, taunts, and slurs that ensure reporters will pay attention.

There was another major media problem in the 2016 election, according to Bruni: equivalency. A reasonably healthy media norm is that any scrutiny applied to one party's nominee is also applied to the other's. This helps ensure that coverage will not overtly favor one party or tip an election. But it also assumes roughly equivalent levels of scandal, corruption, or dishonesty across the candidates.

This norm was wildly misplaced in 2016, and it worked to Trump's advantage. The political media was investigating dozens of serious scandals by the Trump team, from insulting and erratic behavior to financial malfeasance, to outright collaboration with a foreign hostile power. But journalism outlets were hesitant to harp on just one candidate, and they tried to balance the scales by covering what passed for a scandal in the Hillary Clinton camp: her use of a private email server.

Bruni is right that some sort of rethinking is due as the political media starts winding up for 2020 election coverage. Yet right on cue, Josh Kraushaar likened Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Trump. Ocasio-Cortez was criticizing CBS News for lacking an African-American political correspondent, saying that an inclusive news crew is vital for accurate political coverage. Trump, of course, regularly calls the media "the enemy of the people," and has dismissed or even encouraged violence against journalists. To equate those as scolding is not only absurd, but falls into the exact trap Bruni was warning about, placing Trump's misbehaviors on par with everyone else's. And it shows the challenges political writers will face in the coming months if they do seek change.

Now, it's worth asking just how much the tone and quantity of such media coverage will actually affect election outcomes. Judging from the research in political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck's recent book, Identity Crisis, Trump's outsized media coverage in the primaries, stemming from both his outlandish statements and his celebrity past, probably helped him during the Republican nomination contest. Voters were exposed to his message early on and he received a good deal more attention than other candidates, giving him an advantage over many experienced competitors.

On the other hand, while Trump also dominated media coverage in the general election, that likely hurt him against Clinton. All that negative press contributed to Trump having the highest unfavorability ratings of any modern presidential nominee, and are likely part of the reason for his election day underperformance (compared to typical Republican candidates' performance following a two-term Democrat and modest economic growth).

This is where the lessons of 2016 are of only marginal value. For one thing, while excessive media attention helped propel Trump's early candidacy then, it'll do little for him now. He's the president and everyone knows it. Whether he faces a nomination challenge or not, additional attention won't do him any good.

Second, a lot of this attention hurts him. One of the few areas where Republican officeholders are willing to join their Democratic colleagues in criticizing Trump is in his excessive use of Twitter for wildly unpresidential comments. Bruni encourages us to "wean ourselves from [Trump's] Twitter expectorations." Regardless of whether this is good advice for one's own psyche, the fact is Trump's social media presence—and the coverage around that presence—is probably hurting him. It's part of the reason he's polling around 40 percent approval while another president governing in similar economic conditions would be in the high 50s. There are a number of good reasons Trump should not be tweeting, but, as far the Republican Party goes, none are more important than the simple fact that if he were somehow cut off from this service, there's a good chance his approval ratings (and his chances for re-election) would rise.

There are plenty of reasons to not cover Trump like a normal president or a normal presidential candidate, and it's appropriate for political reporters to consider how their work can be different from what it was in 2016. But it's also worth noting that Trump goes into his re-election campaign facing a substantial disadvantage. He's unpopular, because of his unpresidential behavior, yes—but also because the media has done nothing to shy away from that fact.