Early in a marathon presidential campaign, Donald Trump is an unforeseen force that has caught a suspicious media by surprise. And no outlet is more notable than Huffington Post, which announced it would treat him as essentially an entertainment story, or at least classifying as “Entertainment” its coverage of his campaign. As Poynter discovered, it hasn’t really diminished the amount of Trump coverage on the site.
There have always been different sets of rules for covering presidential candidates, especially in large fields. The press routinely exhibits benign neglect for those it considers long-shots, or not especially serious, aspirants for the White House. But Huffington Post is taking a different tack despite the fact that he’s showing well in early polling.
One can argue that it has arrived at the coverage decision almost prematurely, given how Trump’s numbers have remained solid since the Huffington announcement. I am in the ranks of observers who were wrong in believing that his numbers would decline sharply after his remarks about Sen. John McCain not being a “hero.”
After debating the matter on radio shows with Danny Shea, Huffington’s editorial director, I suggested an interview on the whole matter so he could more fully detail the Huffington perspective. Ryan Grim, the Washington Bureau chief, joined him. We spoke via email:
How would you characterize response to your decision on Trump coverage? Has anybody made any points that give you pause? Conversely, have you thought of any new points you’d like to make?
Shea, Grim: The response has been extremely positive, some Twitter disagreement and angry Trump supporters notwithstanding. And a lot of the criticism is coming from the types of people who are still covering him seriously and propping up his campaign as a result. Trump’s campaign is largely a creation of the media and the coverage is a feedback loop involving outlandish statements and meaningless polls. We’re very proud of the decision. Remember that we made the call the day before he made his infamous comments about John McCain’s war hero status. We believe that our decision was validated within 24 hours.
On Sunday you gave prominent homepage display to Trump badmouthing Sen. McCain on being a “hero.” How was that coverage and play any different than it would have normally been?
Shea: Our home page has always had a mix of high and low stories on it and always will. We’re not saying Trump isn’t a buzzy cultural story that people aren’t talking about. We’re saying it should be classified properly and put in the proper context.
Grim: The difference is it was filed in and labeled as Entertainment, so the audience gets that we’re not taking him seriously.
Is there not plenty of room for more substantive, political coverage of Trump? How conservative is he? What’s his actual Vietnam draft record? His view on abortion? His religion? What was he saying about the stimulus when it was passed?
Grim: At what cost? There is so much more interesting journalism to be done than taking a deep look at his past and present policy positions. He’s not going to win, and he doesn’t mean any of it anyway.
Why not make the same decision when Herman Cain, the pizza king, ran four years ago? Nobody thought he had a chance, correct? And, long ago, in a pre-Huffington Post age, what about not covering Ross Perot?
Grim: This is a one-of-a-kind policy for a one-of-a-kind entertainer.
If Trump does well in early polling, and even conceivably in an early primary if he remains in the race, could you consider revisiting your decision?
On a radio show the other day with me, you voiced frustration with a certain lack of substantive, policy-driven political coverage. If I have that correct, expand on your notion.
Shea: What I meant is that this election needs to be about issues and policies not about a sideshow celebrity entertainer, and even 16 months out it’s scary the degree to which Donald Trump has gobbled up the coverage. We want to approach coverage differently. We have a huge emphasis through our What’s Working initiative on talking about policies and solutions and not just focusing on the problems, gaffes and sideshows. Focusing on every muttering out of Trump’s mouth only does two things (aside from ratings, of course): distract from important issues like inequality and criminal justice reform, and encourage other Republican candidates to be more provocative in order to compete with The Donald. It serves no one.
Political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Lynn Vavreck of UCLA argue that Trump’s early surge is precisely a function of media coverage. Do you agree? Even if you do, do you think that his polling in some fashion suggests that he’s genuinely tapped some discontent among prospective Republican voters?
Shea: Yes, completely agree. We believe that Trump’s early polling says more about the reliability of polls and the media’s obsession with him than it does about anything substantive. Sides and Vavreck’s point that the media is driving the Trump narrative – what we might call taking the bait – is spot on, and we think it’s absolute lunacy. Donald Trump is to MSNBC what the Malaysian Airlines disaster was to CNN. Polling at this early stage is largely a function of name ID anyway, and so it’s especially ironic and troubling when media people claim that Trump being #1 in the polls justifies covering him so extensively. It’s even more rich when certain journalists decry his campaign as a car-wreck and then criticize us for our decision to move his coverage out of the politics section. We’re saying no, you don’t have to look at this car-wreck. And if you really must, you can find it under Entertainment.