Trump is Using Twitter to Distract the Media. We Need to Pay Attention.

The President-elect is steering the media away from credible exposés, by using 140 character thought bubbles.


Dan Cody

On 11 November, three days after Donald Trump won the electoral college vote to become the President-Elect of the United States of America, Charles Pierce at Esquire wrote a piece titled ‘This Story Should Dominate the News Until Trump Is Sworn In’. In it, Pierce highlights a piece of information that flew under the radar in the media; this is included below:

“The statement came from Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who said in an interview with the state-run Interfax news agency that “there were contacts” with the Trump team. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Ryabkov said. “We have just begun to consider ways of building dialogue with the future Donald Trump administration and channels we will be using for those purposes,” Ryabkov was quoted as saying. Ryabkov provided no further details, and his remarks drew a swift denial from Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who said the campaign had “no contact with Russian officials” before Tuesday’s election.”

Sergei-Ryabkov

Middle – Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov.

This information, first publicised in The Washington Post, went largely unnoticed at the time it was aired. Some would say this is understandable; the news became available on the 10th, two days after the election, and many were still reeling from the result, whilst the media focused on the reaction of the public and other world leaders to a Trump victory. Pierce, however, insists that this news should be just of much of a focus within the mainstream media as “was devoted to the BREAKING NEWS about what John Podesta had for lunch last year.”

Read: How the World is Reacting to Trump’s Win

Of course, Pierce is right. Communication between a head of state and a state-run news agency from which we would normally expect pointed hostility, is far more important and significant to public interests than the sizzling selfies of Disney’s latest exiled starlet. The problem lies with whether or not the story that might change the world can reach us, in amongst all the rubbish.

Video blogger Evan Puschack, creator of the successful Youtube channel Nerdwriter, recently published a video in which he analyses the way in which Trump has a habit of flying off the handle when the media starts to scrutinise him. The video, titled ‘Donald Trump: Magician-In-Chief’ uses the example of a New York Times piece titled ‘Potential Conflicts Around the Globe for Trump, the Businessman President’ . This article outlines in granular detail the potential conflicts of interest, between Trump’s business interests and ventures around the world, and how this could interfere with his responsibilities as President. The piece was scrutinising to say the least. It was thorough, and hard to argue with.

The next day, Donald Trump made a statement of Twitter claiming that ‘millions of people’ voted illegally during the election, and this had impacted the voting results. The claim was not backed up by any supporting evidence, nor did the President-Elect pursue this line of enquiry any further.

Puschack claims that the timing of this tweet is an example of ‘selective attention’. When the President-elect is at risk, he shoots from the hip, with a unsubstantiated claim with massive implications. This in turn arrests media coverage and pulls all focus away from the threatening press that preceded it, in this case, the conflicts of interest piece.

Indeed, in turned out that the suspicious circumstances regarding the US election results came to be largely centered around Trump – for him, rather than against. Over the last month the FBI has delved into Russia’s involvement in the US election, and revealed hacking behaviours that favoured a Trump victory.

In December, journalism delivered what you might call a one-two punch, in the form of two articles which painted Trump’s validity as President in a very sinister light indeed. ‘Spy vs. spy: The CIA says Russia hacked the election to help Trump — and we know the FBI did’, published by Salon.com on 12 December, painted the Russian involvement in the election with explicit implications. The article did what it said on the tin, it was a honest analysis pointing to post-WW2 Soviet behaviour and pulling no punches.

This was followed by an article published by The New York Times on 13 December, titled ‘The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.’. The article included statements by people such as Admiral Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency and commander of United States Cyber Command, who said that Russia’s involvement was “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”

The next day, mainstream coverage in the US was halted in the middle of the day by reports that rapper Kanye West was visiting the President-elect at Trump Tower. West had been off the grid for three weeks following reports he had been hospitalised following severe mental health issues. This was the first appearance of West, in a meeting that Trump later explained to the press involved him and West talking about “life”. Details of the meeting are still not clear.

Whether intentionally or not, this behaviour by the President-elect again drew all focus away from the serious accusations that had built up in the 48 hours prior to the meeting. Political conversation stood still, and a near-frenzy of speculation followed the non-event. When 24 hour news networks are handed a headline, it’s hard to ignore.

Donald-Trump-Kanye-West-CNN

What is clear in these scenarios is that stories that don’t appeal to a base desire for celebrity, mystery or potential drama fall behind when these stories do appear. Coverage in the media, as we know it today, especially in the sense of online journalism, is not even. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that Trump, at least in some way, does understand the way that the ‘read all about it’ news model – seen particularly in US news networks such as Fox and MSNBC – operates.

Last week saw what was probably the first story related to the Russian hacking scandal that gained any kind of decent ‘airtime’, if that can be defined these days. Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the US, in retaliation for the hacking. This is gaining ground in terms of moving towards full exposure for the story, as all major news outlets covered the story in detail, most likely because the move provoked a response from the Kremlin, with a Putin spokesperson claiming that Russia would ‘consider retaliatory measures’.

Despite some coverage of the stories that  – subjectively –  ‘matter’, President-elect Trump has still somehow managed to build a monopoly on the American conscious, using only his smartphone. To give some idea of just how broad his influence could be, the average viewership of NBC, CBS, and ABC combined, was 23 million in 2015 (Journalism.org). Trump’s Twitter following at the time of writing is 18 million.

 

The United States is about to be taken under the wing of perhaps its most impulsive leader in modern history. Throughout his career, especially leading up to the election, he has flashed a personality which is independent, but at the cost of any identifiable ethics or possession of the basic pool of knowledge which comes part and parcel with most world leaders. By accessing a near-infinite pool of news professionals looking for sparks rather than substance, it will take deliberate resistance by the media in order to tell the truth. What’s clear is that the reaction by the media, and indeed a significant percentage of the public, has given Trump no cause to back down from his inflammatory stance on our world. By becoming a caricature of himself, he can tell the story how we wants, and we shall write it.

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