There is little debate that the media coverage of President Trump (whether deserved or not) is 95% negative. Yet, despite this avalanche of hostility, the president’s approval ratings remain steady.
How is this possible?
To be sure, many elements are driving this outcome. Some are specific to Trump, such as the president’s personality, the fierce loyalty of his admirers, and not least, his willingness to explode established norms. Others, such as the hardening red-blue division and regional or class distinctions, reflect the cultural and economic realignment underway in America.
Below are five structural factors that merit specific mention as their relevance to public policy campaigns will continue well beyond the Trump presidency.
1. Weakened Mainstream Media Credibility
It is widely acknowledged that the 24-hour news cycle and the race to publish quickly has led to a decline in standards for news, both on the air or in print. The emotionally charged environment surrounding Trump has also led to some prominent instances of demonstrably biased reporting. The result is that more Americans lack trust in traditional media sources than ever before. At the same time, traditional outlets are forced to compete with many alternative news sources across all mediums. All these factors make it easier for the public to question the veracity of the latest “all caps” accusations and vastly harder for charges to gain currency with audiences not already predisposed to believe it.
2. Increased Consumption of Like-Minded News Sources
Increasingly, audiences are evaluating the validity of news coverage against the perceived worldview of the source and are placing a premium on those sources they feel reflect their own. As a result, there are now close to 20 center-right publications that attract at least one million visitors a month and reach an immense audience across America. Among the top sites are FoxNews.com, the Daily Caller, Washington Examiner, Newsmax, and Western Journalism. These outlets and many more like them have provided a strong counterbalance to mainstream attacks on the president. They often play a direct role in fueling skepticism of the latest bombshell revelations.
3. The Conservative Domination of Radio
Studies show that radio remains America’s leading megaphone, reaching over 240 million listeners each week. Talk radio persists as one of the top radio formats and continues to be dominated by conservative voices. Many of the biggest shows, such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and others, are diehard Trump loyalists. These hosts spend hours each day defending the administration’s agenda and dissecting the media’s critiques point-by-point. With over 90-percent of the country listening to AM/FM radio, it has played a critical role for the administration in the battle for public approval.
4. The Rise of Social Media
It should come as no surprise that social media has outpaced newspapers as a source of news and information. These social networking sites, particularly Twitter, have allowed center-right decision-makers and analysts to cut through the mainstream media chatter and justify the president’s reasoning to supporters and prospective voters in real-time. During the Mueller investigation, for instance, individual Twitter accounts like @UndercoverHuber, @TechnoFog, and @RedSteeze fact-checked news stories from the mainstream media. They highlighted discrepancies and countered stories, many of which were poorly sourced and, in some cases, later discredited. These three accounts alone have almost half a million followers and are often retweeted by the president and his 75 million followers. Their engagement often shifts public discussion as their analysis quickly finds their way onto Facebook and other social media platforms.
5. Crowdsourcing Rapid Response
Any time a new attack is launched, a veritable army swings into action researching sources, verifying information, and publishing critiques. By monitoring and engaging these outlets closely, the White House and Trump’s congressional defenders have been able to create a feedback loop. This feedback loop supplies them not only with information and arguments tailor-made for core audiences, but also a platform to respond and disseminate their own messaging to large swaths of the nation.
President Trump’s strategy has thus far proven remarkably effective at preventing the loss of existing support and has even shown a significant spill-over effect in influencing coverage that reaches far outside of his base. While the real impact of this strategy will be tested in this November’s election, the tactical methods that are being deployed by Team Trump reflect a changing media landscape that demands appreciation. Recognizing these transformations and developing a plan to harness them will be crucial to public policy battles long into the future.