This is not a political post. I'm sure it will sound like a political post and feel like a political post. But it's really not. It's about the competing worldviews of journalism.
Toward the end of February, the day after one of the approximately 47,000 Republican debates and one in which Marco Rubio allegedly did a good job, Donald Trump held a surprise press conference in which he announced that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was endorsing him for president. Almost immediately, Twitter was full of comments from national reporters and observers about how masterful Trump was at playing the news cycle — that just when he appeared to be on the defensive, he was able to take control of the news cycle.
Which prompted me to tweet:
I like how reporters are talking about how Trump is timing news well, as if they don’t control what news to report/focus on.— Brian Moritz (@bpmoritz) February 26, 2016
In the past month, as it's become clear that Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, there has been a growing debate about the media's complicity in this. Both The Daily Show and The New York Times have discussed it in the past week, which means it must be serious. The debate centers around the notion that Trump's candidacy is a bad thing and that the media should have stopped it somehow. Your beliefs on this probably hug close to whether you think Trump is an actual fascist or an opportunistic blowhard
(Of course, this often conflates media and journalism, which are not necessarily the same thing).
Political journalists have been sensitive to this charge. He's a candidate, a popular one, and the frontrunner, they say. Are we not supposed to cover him?
For me, this exposes the chasm between the journalistic worldview and the media sociology worldview.
To professional journalists, news is something that exists out there in the world, and it’s a reporter’s job to go out there and find it. News is something to be discovered. That is a core belief of the news paradigm. This explains, in part, the journalists' reaction to the "Did the media create Trump?" story. Trump is doing newsworthy things while running for a newsworthy office. Why wouldn't we cover him?
The media sociology view holds that the media did create Trump. In the same way that journalists created DeflateGate or March Madness or everything you read online.
Because journalists create the news.
Let me explain. This does not mean that journalists invent the news or make things up. What it means is that news is a social construct. News doesn't exist naturally in the world. Researchers like Gaye Tuchman and Mark Fishman (among many others) found that news is not a reflection of reality (as the traditional journalistic ethos holds) but instead a construction of reality, which is made by journalists through their routines. News is a social construct, something that is created through journalistic norms, attitudes, practices and routines. In the same way that we confer power upon police officers and elected officials not out of some inherent natural distinction but because of the social norms we've accepted as a society, we've agreed upon certain values that make something "newsworthy." It's why the first thing we teach students in news writing classes is how to determine what's news. By teaching them that, we define what news is.
Donald Trump is a walking news value. He's a prominent person running for a prominent office. He's speaking about issues that have currency. He creates conflict. Lord knows he embodies deviance — the idea of something being out of the ordinary, or different. Combine that with the journalistic norm of objectivity (where journalists feel uneasy telling people what to think or who to vote for), a media environment where clicks and viewers are more important than ever, and the fact that Trump plays the media like a two-dollar banjo, and you have the situation we have today.
For years, the political press has created an environment in which the horse race is what people "care" about, in which polls matter more than anything, where "winning the morning" is a goal. The journalism worldview holds that reporters are merely reflecting this. The sociological view holds that the press created this. The two sides will never probably agree. That's the thing with worldviews.
So the question is not "Did the media create Trump?" The question isn't even "Did the media help create a culture where Trump could thrive?" Those are both categorical yeses. If we're operating under the assumption that a Trump candidacy is somewhere between problematic and disastrous, the question is what, if anything, can we as media and media consumers learn and change about how we construct the news?