Why the US media need to get tougher on Donald Trump

Paul Connew is a media commentator and broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and Deputy Editor of the Daily Mirror, and co-author of After Leveson.

For a man who devotes an unprecedented amount of every rally ranting against an 'unfair, biased media', for my money Donald Trump gets a remarkably soft ride from America's mainstream media. And, yes, there is something beyond satire in the hysterical 'shoot the messenger' tirades from someone who built his 'celebrity' profile on assiduously courting the media he now accuses of trying to shoot down his bid for the most powerful job on earth: president of the United States.

Take the Trump camp's reaction to their man's latest ill-judged, off-the-cuff outburst, the suggestion that his pro-gun supporters could use their power to 'stop' rival Hillary Clinton's White House ambitions. With its menacing hint of violence, Trump's remarks at a North Carolina rally triggered a social media frenzy that wasn't fully reflected by the US media mainstream. But that didn't stop some of Trump's team accusing them of 'wilfully misinterpreting' what he meant and insisting that the Republican candidate was merely advocating supporters of America's second amendment (the right to bear arms) should use their "great political power" to vote against Clinton and "keep her out of the White House".

In a political environment where Trump supporters chant ‘lock her up’ and 'put her in front of a firing squad' about Clinton, the mainstream US media's level of critical coverage still remains relatively muted, certainly compared to that of the UK press. All the more remarkable given that no presidential candidate in US history has campaigned on a platform of vicious, personalised attacks on a mainstream media he brands part of a parasitic 'establishment' rigged to wreck his 'crusade' to make 'America great again'. An anti-media hate campaign that The Donald, ironically, pursues via a stream of shoot-from-the-lip rants on the wild west side of the Twittersphere.

But there was some predictable support for Trump in the wake of his 'Stop Hillary' appeal to America's gun-lovers...from the politically powerful National Rifle Association who loyally circled the wagons around their man and instead turned their fire on a media they accuse of trying to 'silence' The Donald.

At this point I should point out that I met and interviewed Trump a few times some years ago when I was the Mirror's US bureau chief and he was courting British royalty and media to boost his image as America's most dynamic business tycoon through his Trump Tower and Atlantic City casino extravaganzas. A generous host, to be sure; and to call The Donald flamboyant would be a colossal understatement, considering this is a man whose ego makes his Trump Tower look like a bungalow by comparison. But the notion that The Donald could ever be president would have seemed barmy then and it still does now. And yet, despite the 10-point lead Clinton has only very recently built in some opinion polls, such is the strange, uber-volatile mood of US politics and public mood swings, I'd still hesitate to totally write off Trump's chances with all the dire, dangerous, deranged potential that would carry for the US and the rest of the world.

So why aren't the US mainstream media being more aggressive, more forensic, in their treatment of The Donald? Maybe one of Trump's beaten rivals for the Republican ticket Marco Rubio (in theory better-looking, more telegenic) got it right when he said: “If you think about it, Donald Trump says these outrageous and offensive things, his speeches get covered live by cable networks, wall to wall, and I know it's good for ratings to cover them because of what he'll say and the media are playing into his hands because of the ratings factor.”

According to several US media academics – and I think they're right – the mainstream American media has struggled to figure out how to talk about and report on Trump. Not just because of his ratings value, but because so extreme is Trump's break from the political norm, so extreme is his language, so extreme is his reliance on sensationalism and contempt for truth or fact and so great is his disdain for traditional 'decorum', that he defies political/media coverage convention.

Ben Domenech, publisher of respected the Federalist website, urges America's mainstream media to “cool off the soft coverage” of Trump that preceded his nomination and “instead spend time digging into Trump's multitude of victims and spends all its its energy humanising his awfulness”. That would be a be a good argument in favour of 'biased' coverage, but Domenech concedes worryingly: “But can you really blame a news media that has become all about entertainment for their Trump sycophancy, considering that in the end, it's seen as 'just good TV'?”

Other media academics and commentators talk about 'co-dependency' and 'relationship addiction' to describe the odd state of Trump/media relations. As BBC New York correspondent, Nick Bryant acknowledged on his blog quite recently: “For all the abuse, for all the belittlement, we as reporters show no sign of ending our relationship addiction with Donald Trump. Much of our cravenness is easily explained. It stems from the record-breaking TV ratings that Trump generates generates, and just as important these days, millions of online hits.”

Therein lies another truth of the most vitriolic, and potentially violent, presidential campaign set to rage on until November. When media organisations are struggling to monetise online news content, and to make the difficult shift from print to digital, Donald Trump is 'clickbait gold' – a politician who delivers like no other, including Hillary Clinton.

It's a dual appeal too. For those dispossessed, disillusioned Americans across the Rust Belt and elsewhere (including some who'd normally vote Democrat), the billionaire businessman with the celeb profile and the loose lips is the clickbait equivalent of the TV evangelical preacher promising salvation. For those, including moderate Republicans, who are repulsed by Trump and his ranting, rabble-rousing approach to campaigning, there is still hideous fascination into clicking online or turning on the telly when The Donald takes to the podium to shoot from those loose, rubbery lips.

As one senior US TV editor friend tells me: “Have we treated Donald Trump with kid gloves for too long? Yes. Is he good for ratings? Yes. Is there a connection between the two? OK, yes, too. But I'd argue that we're becoming more critical, more forensic since the Republican convention and especially since Trump's badly misjudged counter-attacks on the parents of a US Muslim army officer killed in the line of duty. And I think his latest remarks about the gun lobby stopping Clinton will escalate a more critical, investigatory mainstream media approach, both in broadcast and in print.”

Good news, if it proves true. For those of us horrified by the prospect of Donald Trump adding the White House to his much-boasted property portfolio anyway. But the strange, and often craven, tale of Donald Trump and the American mainstream media is sure to have many a twist to play out yet.

Hopefully more mainstream US titles will follow the lead of the New York Daily News, regularly critical of Trump, who today carried a front page editorial calling on him to end his campaign.

Under the headline “This isn’t a joke any more”, the paper indicted the New York tycoon in these excoriating terms: “When Trump hinted gun rights supporters shoot Hillary, he went from offensive to reckless. He must end his campaign. If he doesn't, the GOP needs to abandon him.”

Just hours before Trump's 'stop her' appeal to gun enthusiasts, a relatively under-reported Reuters poll among US voters suggested that 44 per cent wanted him to drop out of the race, with 20 per cent of Republican voters backing that viewpoint. Among some senior Republican party figures, there is a small, but growing, glimmer of hope that the combination of Trump's latest outburst and his sudden slump in the polls could bring that about.

One senior anti-Trump Republican party 'fixer' tells me: "More and more ordinary reasonable Republican supporters are becoming not just embarrassed but terrified by Trump and the prospect of him becoming president. Abstaining or even voting for Hillary to stop Trump is a growing sentiment.

"Insulting the parents of a US Muslim war hero, suggesting women who are sexually harassed at work should just go and find another job, welcoming Russia hacking Hillary Clinton's emails, warnings by dozens of intelligence experts, many of them Republicans, that he's a threat to national security and now his call on the gun lobby to effectively target Clinton are taking their toll. Trump's getting wilder and wilder and he'll be crazy mad about the New York Daily News front page in his home city, but in truth we need more newspapers to do what the News did today.

"Rational Republicans are only too alert to the danger that Trump's 'Stop Hillary' message to millions of Americans with guns is that somewhere out there is a crazy loner or extremist right wing group who'll take it as an inspiration to make an assassination attempt and turn an already ugly campaign into something even darker, dangerous and anti-democratic."

Meanwhile an unrepentant Trump reacted to the latest firestorm he's triggered by tweeting: “When is the media going to talk about Hillary's policies that have gotten people killed, like Libya, open borders...”

Coincidentally, data research by Stack Overflow's David Robinson suggests that Trump writes “angrier, more negative Twitter posts himself” than the more measured efforts of his campaign staff.

According to Robinson, Trump's Android account uses between 40-80 per cent more abusive language, with words like 'crazy', weak', 'dumb' popping up repeatedly. While tweets from the the official campaign iPhone account tend to be less emotive and more nuanced.

Robinson told the Guardian: “A lot has been written and said about Trump's mental state, but I'd rather get inside the head of the anonymous staffer(s) whose job is to imitate Trump's unique cadence, or to put a positive spin on it, to millions of followers. Is he/she a true believer, or just a cog in a political machine, mixing whatever mainstream appeal you can into the @realDonaldTrump concoction?”

Trump may indeed hate the media and carry on shooting the messenger until polling day arrives. But I'm not sure how much America's 'liberal' mainstream media powerbrokers hate what he stands for as much as they love what he brings to the ratings. And that's why even Hillary Clinton's campaign managers worry that Trump still pulls in more airtime and bigger ratings than the political veteran running to become America's first female president.

Paul Connew is a broadcaster, media commentator, former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and former US bureau chief for the Mirror. He has US citizen children who won't be voting for Donald Trump in November