Thoughts on Politics and Media
Robert M. Entman
April 18, 2020
Ironically, by giving Trump a daily stage for his propaganda briefings/press conferences, news organizations lend credence to his claim that citizens can’t trust the major national media as reliable sources of facts and clarity. No matter how aggressive or clever their questioning, journalists can’t compel Trump to correct falsehoods, resolve contradictions, concede mistakes or take responsibility.
Worse they may actually be helping Trump obscure reality and evade accountability. Despite impeachment, despite monumental failures at managing this crisis, Trump’s approval ratings remain close to their all-time highs. And he is tied with or ahead of Joe Biden in many battleground states.
All it takes for Trump to have a good shot at maintaining power given a near-evenly split electorate is:
One step toward a solution: Democrats should demand, and networks should grant, equal time to Democrats so they can present a regular counterpart to the Trump show. Not only would this create a more diverse marketplace of ideas for those who watch the shows—an equivalent to Britain’s televised parliamentary question hours. It would also provide constantly refreshed material on which reporters could build new stories that feature the two parties’ competitive framing of the vital issues confronting the country.
And it would fulfill the non-partisan press’s stated goal of balance. Right now they’re seriously violating that commitment, daily amplifying Trump’s dangerous, misleading voice while granting Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders only occasional, fragmented attention (as my research with Dr. Curd Knupfer shows). The networks provide time for the out-party to reply after presidential State of the Union speeches. In this time of crisis they must provide Democrats a platform every time Trump commands the airwaves.
Instead of quoting Trump’s distortions and distractions, followed up with wan qualifications from reporters constrained as always by the dictates of objectivity (“Some health experts say, however, that these drugs must first go through clinical trials”), stories might feature real debates, genuine clashes of ideas. And Trump would be confronted by high-visibility, explicit and, we can hope, clear and compelling arguments that might force him to answer or even change course.
This scenario would require the Democratic Party to up its game substantially. The party needs to learn some lessons from Republican successes of the past 40 years. For example: appeal to emotions, not just reason; use language pitched to those with high school rather than Ivy League educations; tell stories, don’t list programs; craft messages using visual images to reinforce verbal arguments; and make those verbal arguments explicit.
Distressingly, a pro-Biden ad running on my local (Raleigh-Durham, NC) version of NBC Nightly News displays the Democrats up to their usual lack of tricks. The ad lists 10 different actions a President Biden would take in the face of the pandemic. These flash by before any but the most devoted political junkie could absorb them, backed by a cacophony of unrelated visual images. Viewers are left to infer that these are important things Trump isn’t doing. They encounter no clear emotional message or narrative through-line.
Widely available, regular and skillfully managed briefings by Democrats could help reinvigorate, empower and legitimize journalism as it promotes democracy. In the face of a national crisis overseen by an incompetent president who violates fundamental democratic norms, the American people deserve more than business as usual from the media and the opposition party.
Dr. Robert M. Entman is Shapiro Professor Emeritus of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University.