With NFL controversy, did media play into Trump's 'distraction tactics'?

Critics have faulted the role the news media has played in highlighting the president's inflammatory style, saying that what’s lost is a deeper focus on the country’s more pressing needs.

Matt York/AP
The Dallas Cowboys, led by owner Jerry Jones (c.) take a knee prior to the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz., Sept. 25. What began more than a year ago with a lone NFL quarterback protesting police brutality against minorities by kneeling silently during the national anthem before games has grown into a roar with hundreds of players sitting, kneeling, locking arms or remaining in locker rooms, their reasons for demonstrating as varied as their methods.

Over the past week, the news media covered a number of the country’s most pressing issues: ongoing threats from North Korea, the Senate’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare, the Trump administration’s late-Sunday-night announcement of its Travel Ban 3.0.

President Trump’s offensive quip about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem last Friday at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Ala., however, was the story that resonated most around the country – and by far.

Many critics, however, have faulted the role the news media has played in highlighting Mr. Trump’s inflammatory style, identifying a “disturbing symbiosis” between news outlets seeking viewers in a competitive marketplace and a showman who is master of the provocative tweet. What’s lost is a deeper focus on the country’s more pressing needs, many say.

“He’s like catnip to the traditional broadcast media,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of media studies and culture critic at Fordham University in New York. “When Trump says something like that, they probably realize that it makes things worse, but they can’t help themselves. It’s still shocking.”

On Monday, reporters asked White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders whether the president’s crude statement had “taken up so much oxygen” in the news that little was now being said about his legislative agenda.

John Bazemore/AP/File
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and outside linebacker Eli Harold (58) kneel during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Atlanta in December 2016.

“Well, that’s determined by you guys,” Ms. Sanders said, adding that the president was being patriotic and taking the lead on this issue.

After Trump’s election, a number of news organizations began to rethink their coverage of the presidency, both in reaction to the number of the president’s false factual assertions as well as his barrage of criticisms of “the dishonest media.”

Organizations such as Reuters, The New York Times, and Politico began to experiment with different kinds of headlines, signaling the president's false assertions and contextualizing his tweets. “We shouldn’t take his bait, but that’s not the same as ignoring him,” wrote Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, who last year advocated less journalistic focus on Twitter, and the need to understand Trump’s long-developed methods of handling the media and generating attention.

“Traditional media, having increasingly looked to Twitter as a source of news, it’s beginning to become what people expect, which is sad and dangerous in its own way,” says Professor Levinson, noting the shrill and relatively low level of discourse that flourishes there.   

Off the presidential cuff

From the opening moments of his presidential campaign, Trump has demonstrated a remarkable ability to dominate the news media with a provocative, off-the-cuff style rarely seen before in United States politics. What might have been considered career-threatening gaffes for politicians less talented in the art of cultivating media attention, Trump has used to inflame a base of supporters that propelled him to the presidency.

“It does seem that, whether he’s thinking this out in advance or not, we have to say he really has his thumb on the pulse of his base,” says Jeanne Zaino, a political scientist at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. “These are the issues they want to hear about.”

There’s also something deeper going on, suggests Aram Sinnreich, professor of communication at American University in Washington. Critics have often dismissed the president’s off-the-cuff riffs at such campaign rallies as “rambling.” But in some ways there’s an intuitive and media-savvy method in the kinds of provocative riffs Trump employs when he speaks.

“I don’t think he’s some kind of a super genius,” says Professor Sinnreich. “His brand of self-promotion just happens to fit like a key in a lock with a social media, promotional, targeted marketing environment. And the results are exponential in nature in producing rhetorical power.”

“You can watch him do it in real time,” he continues. “OK, I’m going to try this riff, I’m going to try that riff, I’m going to try this riff. Oh, I got that one. OK, now I’m going to double down on that one and go to Twitter and reinforce the message. Then he sends us all spinning, and we all go scrambling to rationally analyze or critique what he’s saying.”

It’s a tried and true technique often called A/B testing, he says, in which marketers test variations of particular messages to see what goes viral. “In a way, the stuff that the big data companies are now doing algorithmically, Trump is doing organically.”

It also has the ability to divert attention from a legislative agenda that has produced few wins. On Tuesday, for instance, GOP senators' latest effort to overhaul the Affordable Care Act failed to make it to a vote, and the candidate Trump went to Alabama to support, Sen. Luther Strange, lost to firebrand jurist Roy Moore in the Republican runoff.

“But he goes there to Huntsville – and he already wasn’t getting much traction in the Alabama race, or health care, or his new travel ban, which he never mentioned – and they didn’t seem to be giving him too much of a reaction early on,” Professor Zaino continues. “But he says this about NFL players, and then all of the sudden he gets this enormous reaction.”

The Huntsville speech

Indeed, the crowd’s reactions to many of the president’s well-worn riffs were bordering on the tepid last Friday.

The president touted his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. “How about a thing called your Second Amendment? Right? Remember that? If crooked Hillary got elected, you would not have Second Amendment, believe me. You’d be handing in your rifles,” he said, pantomiming handing a rifle over.

The crowd did react, and a lackluster chant of “Lock her up!” started to ripple across the crowd. “You gotta speak to Jeff Sessions about that,” the president said.

And in touting Strange, Trump defended his efforts to pass the Republican health care bill. “I’m on the phone screaming at people, for weeks,” he said.

With an eye-rolling braggadocio, the president admitted his distaste for the role, describing the process of schmoozing for votes as “brutal, brutal.”

And then it came: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b---- off the field right now? Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ”  

The crowd exploded. A buzz went through the arena. For the first time, the crowd began chanting “USA! USA!” The president beamed.

By Sunday, the topic dominated the news. Every NFL game, too, was watched closely as much for the teams’ reactions to the president’s quip as for the games themselves. As of Wednesday, Trump had tweeted at least 25 times about the NFL controversy, but only 4 times about the devastation in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria.  

The topic began trending on Facebook and Twitter. The alt-right media personality and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich posted a video on Facebook in which he quoted the president verbatim multiple times. “Proud Americans Stand Up,” he labeled the video, calling it an “experiment” urging users to “share this video if you agree with Trump's statement concerning the NFL's disrespect of America.”

As of Wednesday, the video had more than 12 million views and nearly a half million shares.

“We have a president who seems to have a knack for drawing an audience,” says Zaino, “and that makes it really tough for the news media. He’s really got no wins under his belt – and the point is, this is what he’s going to try to win on.”

“One thing the media can do better is ask, ‘Is this the most important story of the day? No,' ” she continues, adding that it can also get better at identifying distraction tactics, even as his words and actions resonate with his restive base.

“Yet you can say that, but when you look to getting ratings and readers, it’s a really tough thing to follow through,” she says.

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