How The Media Swept Trump To Victory


"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." -- Albert Einstein

We all love shortcuts. In fact, they are hardwired by nature. Because survival required quick decisions, brain circuitry evolved to fast track certain information.

This privileged data set contains cues to inform basic questions such as "Is a behavior acceptable?" Often, the answer is defined by what we observe others doing. This is called social proof. It is a fundamental reflex because survival was predicated on fitting in and remaining a member in good standing of the primal horde.

In uncertain times of change and division, like our present, we seek such cues more actively. We naturally look to those we perceive as knowledgeable. In contemporary culture, we watch news pundits, polls, and social media.

The most remarkable thing about the election is not Trump's victory but how the media was blindsided by the result. The press had predicted an easy Clinton win. There are two fundamental issues here. First, the press missed the reality of white working-class voters' alienation. Second, it unwittingly expedited their revolt.

Although Trump spent much less than his competitors on advertising, his presence dominated by virtue of something known as earned media. This includes news and commentary about Trump on television, in newspapers and on social media. According to mediaQuant, a firm that tracks coverage and calculates a dollar value based on advertising rates, Trump received approximately 2 billion dollars worth of free media coverage. This dwarfed all other candidates.

The media is an eyeball-driven industry. Advertising funds the media. The more views, the more advertising revenue generated. This formula has a profound effect on what becomes news. Eyeballs glass over when viewing a complicated story. Therefore media embraces the simple message and Trump is a master of the simple message.

Media coverage of a story conveys two things, the story itself and the fact that the story is important. Greater coverage amplifies the message that this is worthy of your attention. The media's 24/7 Trump coverage sent a contradictory signal: This man has something important to say and he will never win.

So, back to social proof. The barrage of Trump coverage told the public he is important, he should be heard. It legitimized his message, his language, and his behavior. Like any automatic pilot system, our hardwired cognitive shortcuts are only as good as the inputted data. Bad data yield bad results.

One of the most important functions of a free media is fact checking. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 62% of the public gets their news from social media. This often fact-free echo chamber has promoted such fictions as the birther theory, thousands of NJ Muslims seen cheering the 9/11 attacks, pictures of Ted Cruz's father with Lee Harvey Oswald, Putin did not invade Ukraine, global warming is a Chinese-perpetrated hoax...

We need consensus on the facts in order to have a meaningful debate in which we express our opinions about those facts. As Winston Churchill famously said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." If the first casualty of an election is the truth, can we still be a democracy?