Why the news media will miss the Trump presidency – and how the New Zealand leader’s use of social media bears a passing resemblance to Trump’s.
Many journalists and the companies that employ them are going to miss President Donald Trump more than they realise. The Trump news tornado has arguably saved some of the biggest media organisations in the United States and played a not insignificant role in sustaining some of those abroad.
Existential threats the news media faced before Trump are still there, and will come into sharp relief in a new, potentially quieter, calmer, and somewhat more boring era.
We also need to deal more effectively with the fact that politicians – including Jacinda Ardern – are increasingly going direct on social media, bypassing reporters’ mediating role.
Trump disintermediated and disrupted – to use words more commonly heard in Silicon Valley – news outlets in ways they never quite managed to counter. On Twitter particularly, he went direct and made the traditional media follow him.
For the news media, it was a case of adapt or die: Adapt to having to track the rantings of a man in the White House who tweeted as though he were drunk despite being a teetotaller, or risk death – for an industry which trades in attention – if they didn’t track Trump’s popularity and influence: 88.9 million followers for @realddonaldtrump on Twitter, 32 million for the @potus account and 32 million on Facebook.
“Trump used the traditional media organisations, which until a few days ago were the chief amplifiers of his deceit,” Walter Cronkite School of Journalism Professor Dan Gillmor told The Spinoff. “Yes, the Murdoch family’s Fox ‘News’ and other extreme right-wing outlets led that chorus, but news organisations that should have known better did much the same thing even as they sighed loudly and worried that they were being used.”
CNN, whose chief executive Jeff Zucker put The Apprentice on air when he ran NBC Universal, paving the way for the Trump presidency and giving him his best-ever payday, gave Trump wall-to-wall coverage throughout 2016 because he rated.
On Monday, in a memo to staff, Zucker described the 2020 election as a “defining moment” for CNN: “Last week was our most-watched week ever. More people watched the election coverage on CNN than any other network, cable or broadcast. We had five of our most-watched 10 days in history last week.”
The question is whether networks in the US, especially Fox, can get over their Trump addiction.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” now-discredited CBS chief Leslie Moonves said of his network’s coverage of the GOP presidential candidate race won by Trump in 2016. “It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
As we know, he did keep going and his fingernails are now clawing at the resolute desk.
Merja Myllylahti, a journalism lecturer at AUT and co-director of the Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre, doesn’t entirely buy the theory. “Trump certainly gave a bump to newspapers’ digital subscriptions, but the reason why The NYT and The Washington Post got more subscriptions is that people wanted verified information against Trump’s misinformation,” she said.
“We have seen during the Covid-19 crisis that people have turned to trusted news brands, so if newspapers can keep those readers, they will be fine without Trump.”
The question here that is relevant to New Zealand politics and media – and yes, I realise it is a huge stretch to link Trump and Ardern in one sentence – is about disintermediation. That’s the ability to bypass reporters, go around broadcasters, go direct on social, to speak to people. The New Zealand prime minister is unarguably brilliant at it.
Her Facebook broadcasts get hundreds of thousands of views, whether they’re the latest on Covid, a quick broadcast from a people mover during the election, or a discreetly contrived conversation from her desk in the Beehive.
Watch and you’ll see thousands of heart emoji and likes from her 1.8 million Facebook followers. As a journalist, I admit to finding these livestreams unnerving because they do two things Trump understands well: convey a message with no scrutiny from journalists to get in the way, and set an agenda that journalists feel compelled to follow.
In the television industry, it’s known as going OTT or Over The Top: bypassing terrestrial and cable networks to go direct to the consumer over the internet.
Despite the Christchurch Call for Facebook and other social media companies to do more to police online terrorist content after the mosque terror attacks, Ardern still engages with the platform. She knows it’s where her audience is.
Myllylahti doesn’t necessarily see that as a problem for journalism. “I don’t believe that the public support politicians have on social media hinders journalists doing their jobs. We have certainly seen that in the case of Trump, journalists have been able to hold him to account.”
I’m not sure I agree. I think journalists should be concerned about politicians going Over The Top – not in the sense of going too far (though it is clearly the case with Trump), but what it means when super-communicators like Jacinda Ardern can reach the electorate directly.
While she is also a skilful user of Facebook live video, Ardern also makes a real effort to make herself available to media, as demonstrated during the height of the Covid crisis when she appeared at daily press briefings and made a point of addressing journalists by name. However it’s not clear that the public cares much if politicians – or at least ones the public likes – avoid journalists’ questions. We know that is the case with Ardern because so many people were outraged by the Q&A portion of the briefings, where faceless reporters often sounded like a rabble.
When Herald political reporter Jason Walls tried to tackle Ardern with persistent and legitimate questions, he faced online abuse from people who claimed he “harangued” and “harassed” the prime minister. As one outraged commenter put it: “Why are you such a self-righteous prick?”
Though I don’t know Walls I am sure he is not a self-righteous prick, but journalists can come across that way when up against a popular and skilled communicator like Ardern.
Newshub’s Tova O’Brien rightly won global praise for immolating opportunistic conspiracist and one-time National MP Jami Lee-Ross – partly by expressing a level of exasperation at his evasiveness that against anyone else would have been considered rude.
Those tactics won’t work with Jacinda Ardern. New Zealand journalism needs an intelligent, forthright but non-confrontational way to hold her to account – or watch from the sidelines as she goes OTT.