Huffington Post says it will frame Trump’s campaign as entertainment. I support that.

"Newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can't even take the guy seriously? Tell us!"

19 Jul 2015 10:23 am 18 Comments


This was the entire announcement. Lets look at it again:

[Huff Post Politics] A Note About Our Coverage Of Donald Trump’s ‘Campaign’

Ryan Grim, Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post
Danny Shea, Editorial Director, The Huffington Post

After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.

That’s concise. But there was no bill of particulars for the claim, “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow.” Huffington Post made a statement. It made no attempt to persuade people to it. Presumably the editors thought the evidence sufficiently clear for the basic equation: Trump campaign = entertainment.

I might have done it differently — I would have added a bill of particulars — but I support what Huffington Post did.

1. In that missing bill of particulars might have appeared this, heard on Meet the Press two weeks ago. I could show you hundreds of statements just like it from learned pundits and campaign correspondents. Here is the tireless author of the Washington Post’s The Fix blog (it’s for political junkies.)

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I certainly agree that Trump loves being anyone’s foil because it means we’re talking about him, right? And then I think this is a car accident candidacy, Donald Trump, which is essentially there’s a car accident. You don’t want to slow down. You don’t want to look. But there’s always traffic because everybody slows down and everybody looks, right? And that’s Donald Trump.

Right: that’s Trump. So to classify his campaign as entertainment is to share in — but extend a little bit — what Chris Cillizza and his colleagues have done hundreds of times in their columns and on air. There’s a different logic operating here, they have told us. The logic of… person who is a walking car wreck. A more innocent term for it is “showman.” An even milder, vaguer term is entertainment.

2. A car wreck is entertainment only in this sense: it produces attention from gruesome spectacle alone, not by persuading you of its goodness or fitness or information value. Anything that compels a look or gets ’em talking can be entertaining. 512px-Donald_Trump_by_Gage_SkidmoreWe know this from social life and media life. If you’re willing to be that person who is a walking car wreck, the attention problem is easier to solve. Trump is willing. Other candidates are not. Whatever “issue” he’s talking about at the moment, the problem he’s trying to solve is continuity of attention for the figurine Trump. You can’t assess that sort of campaign in the same way, even though it might affect The Race. Even though it might have political consequences that are quite real.

3. ‘There’s a different logic driving Trump’s campaign. So we re-classified it.’ This is what I understand the Huffington Post to be saying. To me it is a sensible proposition. (Trump’s response.)

4. Yes, I think journalists should be involved in such judgments. Exactly so. What is the logic of this candidacy? Who is a serious candidate for president? Who is not capable? These are exactly the assessments editors and reporters have to be making as they review the field and decide how to “spend” scarce coverage units. They’re not deciding who we vote for. They’re deciding how best to render the field. Who is a serious foreign policy candidate? Who has proposals for addressing inequality that are worthy of more discussion? Campaign journalists should be able to tell us, and then point to the record so we can check our judgment against theirs.

Part of the reason I support what Huff Post did with its Trump coverage is that I think newsrooms should be more up front with us about how they classify the candidates. Can’t even take the guy seriously? Tell us why! It will help in evaluating your coverage. Huff Post struck a blow for editorial transparency when it said: For us, Trump’s campaign is best classified as entertainment.

5. A “symbolic” blow it was, however. From what I can tell, not that much will be different in the way the Huffington Post reports on Trump. It’s not going to ignore the Trump phenomenon. Journalistically speaking, it can’t. The big summer project from Trump studios is affecting the other candidates. It could affect the fortunes of the Republican party. (We don’t know this yet.) It says something about the GOP’s current state that Trump could get this far. And there’s clearly commercial demand for the show among readers and viewers, as well as cable bookers. So let’s be clear: the Huffington Post will still be reporting on Trump’s campaign. But as Ryan Grim said Saturday on Twitter: “It’s reported on first as entertainment. The distinction is symbolic.”

6. As rendered here:

Screen Shot 2015-07-18 at 2.27.51 PM

“The distinction is symbolic.” Yes. Also difficult to observe in a wholly consistent way.

7. I asked Ryan Grim: If the move Huff Post made is symbolic — not a big shift in practice so much as a statement — what are you trying to say? He told me:

The media aren’t passive bystanders to history, but very much active participants, whether we like it or not. Polls at the early stages are largely a function of name ID. And since Trump entered the race, he has consumed the bulk of coverage and unsurprisingly he is rising in the polls, a phenomenon the media point to to justify even more coverage. It’s self-fulfilling absurdity. And we can choose to do it differently. That’s the message we’re sending.

Especially in the early stages of campaigns what appears to be significant is often a reflection of patterns in media coverage. Patterns in media coverage are a reflection of… well, that’s the problem. Huff Post is saying: We know we’re participants, as well as observers. In our role as framer of coverage and classifier of candidates we stand thusly on Trump’s 2016 campaign: its first logic is entertainment. Don’t agree with us? Fine. You know where we’re coming from.

To me that is progress. “The media aren’t passive bystanders, but participants…” is progress.

8. The opposing position was put forward by… Chris Cillizza, reacting to Huffington Post’s announcement:

Who are we to decide who’s serious and who’s not in an election? Trump’s polling suggests that, whether you like him or not and whether you think his campaign is a sideshow or not, plenty of people who identify as both Republicans and likely voters don’t see him that way. It’s not up to me, The Washington Post or the Huffington Post to decide the relative merits of people feeling that way. It’s our job to understand why they feel that way, analyze how long they might feel that way and figure out what it means for everyone else running for president that they feel that way.

In other words: We don’t know we’re participants. Maybe we’re just observers!

Other reactions I saw from journalists took a similar tack. If you dismiss Trump as entertainment you are telling the voters who support him that they are clowns and asses and dupes. But these are real voters! You can’t say that about them. (Real voters don’t show up until January 2016, of course, but never mind…)

Who are we to decide who’s serious and who’s not? The obvious trouble for journalists is they’re already doing that— but by default. As Ryan Grim said. “[Trump] has consumed the bulk of coverage and unsurprisingly he is rising in the polls, a phenomenon the media point to to justify even more coverage.”

9. I would have done it differently. I would have announced the policy with a detailed work of analysis that gives chapter and verse about early primary polls and media coverage. (Some of that started to emerge here.) I would have made sure that Trump-made news really doesn’t appear in the Politics section. (“We were ironing out kinks yesterday, but that’ll be how we handle it going forward,” Grim said Sunday morning.) And instead of asking political journalists to struggle with the entertainment logic of the Trump candidacy, I’d also ask entertainment journalists to struggle with the political consequences of the Trump production.

10. “That Trump has any support at all is a genuine phenomenon and has implications that are serious,” Grim told me. “That should be covered seriously. What we’re saying is that Trump himself shouldn’t be.” Again, seems sensible to me. And there are signs this weekend of peak Trump so maybe the problem will go away.

But what the Huffington Post did should be recalled as a slip in solidarity that revealed something about the campaign press: it likes the default settings and the circularity they create. It does not like dissent from them. That’s grandstanding. (Politico.) That’s childish. (Bloomberg.) I disagree: “We will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section…” is the work of fed-up and free-thinking adults.

Photo credits: Neelex and Gage Skidmore.


How the Republicans are dealing with Trump happens to be the biggest political story today. Yes, political. This was a delightful but silly piece of grandstanding by HuffPost. What responsible reporting would do is contextualize Trump — and the other candidates — by describing the extent of their grasp on reality, by describing the reasons for concern about their fitness for office. In this case Trump is a political story, and on second reference should be referred to as a preposterous, clownish figure whose self-aggrandizing has somehow led to success in GOP polls, in a possible reflection on the GOP electorate.

HuffPost’s decision was pure editorial, in keeping with it’s idiosyncratic style & to which all publications have a right.

“Huffington Post … revealed…the campaign press…likes the default settings and the circularity they create. It does not like dissent from them.”

Yes, they love the status quo, horse-race campaign coverage of predictable, vanilla candidates & issues.

It spares them from any serious work or analysis — column inches & air time can be easily filled with the usual campaign ‘reporting’ fluff.

Trump personally is an amusing hustler, but he has inadvertently raised deeply serious national issues and garnered significant popular support — those issues & resonance are very worthy objects of serious journalism.

Theatrics, superficiality, pandering and demagoguery are commonplace attributes of American political candidates. The dominant news media see no problem with that… so long as such candidates conform to the general tone, customs, and outlook of the Democrat/Republican political establishment.
Of course, the dominant news media are also long term members of that establishment. The Establishment dislikes and fears boat-rockers.

Skip Trump’s personality and the campaign horse race trivia, but closely cover the important issues Trump is highlighting.

Simon Owens says:

Is Trump a clown? Yes. Is his presidential campaign entertaining? Yes. That doesn’t mean the press shouldn’t treat him seriously or that he doesn’t deserve coverage. Trump is doing something amazing in that he’s dispensing with focus group tested code words and actually voicing the reasoning behind GOP policy, and in doing so forcing mainstream GOP to either agree with or denounce his statements. For instance, Latino Americans are now better educated on the GOP stance toward immigrants because of his widely publicized statements about Mexicans and how each GOP candidate responded to those statements. Because of this, Trump deserves his political coverage and I hope his statements on the campaign trail continue to get coverage.

Doug Singer says:

If HuffPo really wants to cover The Donald as entertainment they might as well go full TMZ on him. Did into his personal affairs, stalk him with paparazzi, sensationalize his fashion choices, etc. Why not all in or nothing? Instead, their position reads as meaningless snark.

I’m all for transparency, and anything that moves our media system in that direction is good. But the specifics of this decision really baffles me. Under the current rules for participation in the debates, Trump will be a participant. Until and unless that changes, his story is a political story and not an entertainment story.

And yes, I absolutely agree that a model of coverage that recognizes that “the media aren’t passive bystanders, but participants…” is indeed progress. But this idea that Trump the man (unserious) and Trump the political phenomenon (serious) can be separated and covered differently – one as entertainment the other politics – strikes me as bizarre. How precisely does one operationalize this in the day to day course of events? Moreover, assuming that Trump stays in the Top 10 among polling respondents, how does his participation in the debates get covered? If and when that happens – and I would be willing to wager a significant sum that it does unless the rules are changes – I think this distinction will inevitably break down.

This is a dangerous view, it seems to me, Jay.

You innovated the term “The Great Horizontal,” and the press has worked its way into utter irrelevance in this world. Look around. The public has lost its trust of the press, and decisions like this only serve to strengthen that disconnect. Moreover, it smacks of Hallin’s “Sphere of Deviance,” another discouraging aspect of the press that you also taught me about.

Are we really going to be so arrogant as to suggest that the audience is the problem? That their ignorance needs our correction? That they need us to point out what is or isn’t truth? Really? ‘Cause if that’s our role, we’ve already lost everything.

I’m not a Trump guy, but his sense that the public is sick to death of the status quo is correct. The Huffington Post decision loudly declares which side we’re on.

THE media problem

Sorry. The link doesn’t work.

Of course Jay Rosen is going to suggest that the audience is the problem. Are you new to PressThink? Rosen still believes that citizen journalism is going to take off, that Vox is a daring experiment (as opposed to a degenerate clickbait factory), that a blog about journalism is anything more than high level onanism (the kind where you don’t even cum at the end).

Vincent Campbell says:

Jay, a view from across the Pond in the UK. To me, HuffPo’s position is disingenous at best.

In effect they’re loudly proclaiming that yes, like everyone else, they will be looking at the car crash as they go past- so everyone knows they can still go to HuffPo for Trump updates- but somehow they’ll be looking in a way that’s not as complicit as all the other car crash rubberneckers.

In an age of news arriving through social media algorithms, the section a story appears in is irrelevant, it’s all about visits after all. So, there’s a cynicism to this announcement as well. Trump means visits, in the same way that over here in the UK, Nigel Farage gets coverage for producing good copy despite (or perhaps because of) having reprehensible views, regardless of real electoral chances.

Finally, as the McCain’s no hero comments show, saying Trump is entertainment news risks having to stick everyone he refers to in there as well. So, it’s impractical.

The real issue, as shown by research going back at least to the early 90s, is not so much how the US media choose to cover candidates, it’s whether they cover some of them at all. Sites like HuffPo were supposed to be part of changing all that and pretending to be relegating Trump to Ents whilst still giving him lots of coverage anyway, isn’t that.

I’m with Dan F.; and Jay, I think you’ve missed a classic Jay point here. Putting Trump in “Entertainment” was a weaselly move by HuffPo, a way to sidestep its obligations. If news outlets didn’t feel obliged to provide what you call “savvy” coverage (i.e. to only comment on what a candidate’s behavior will do to his election chances) but were able to take a position on the candidate himself, then they would be able to cover Trump honestly in the politics section. By moving him out of that section they’re just avoiding that embarrassing conundrum. The better approach would be to keep him in politics and, as Dan says, “contextualize Trump — and the other candidates — by describing the extent of their grasp on reality, by describing the reasons for concern about their fitness for office.”

I get the point. And I recognize that I am way in the minority on this. Almost all journalists disagree with me, far as I can tell. Typical would be:

My recollection is that the San Francisco newspapers viewed Dianne Feinstein’s mayoral campaigning as a joke, prior to Harvey Milk being murdered. Where would HuffPo have stood, and how would it have served the public?

Yes, it seems sensible to you, but then you’re a gay Jew who is completely out of touch with reality. Your blog and other media blogs is your world. Trump is operating in reality, where he’s leading or tying in various state polls. On the other side, your side, is geriatric Hillary, who looks like she may have a series of mini-strokes and maybe a pants-pissing incident in her near future. Good luck with that.

Also, remind me again why a glorified blog is worth caring about. HuffPo runs its own clickbait operation and has no real credibility, as most of its content is auto-generated blog drippings. It’s even less relevant than the press. What percentage of the voters turn to HuffPo for news?

Jay —

In your #4, you suggest the questions that editors and reporters should ask in making an assessment of where to assign their resources for campaign coverage.

Missing is the following: “Which candidate in the primary field most clearly exposes the hidden contradictions and fault lines in his party’s coalition and its appeal to the voters?”

If you include that question, Donald Trump is the answer, by a mile. Huffington Post is wrong to treat Trump as a mere sideshow. Chris Cillizza is wrong to dismiss his role as a “car accident candidacy.”

On the contrary, Trump’s candidacy forces the Republican Party to choose between the security of its current power base in the House of Representatives and the uncertainty of its aspirations to the White House. It also exposes the contradictions that arise when conservatism tries to be a political and a cultural ideology simultaneously.

My argument is here.

Richard Aubrey says:

It’s an old and dusty chestnut of poli sci that if the establishment politicians ignore one or more issues which concern a large proportion of the citizenry, somebody will show up who does pay attention. And you may not like that person.
Trump’s virtues or failings are not the point here. The point here is that a bunch of professionals have left a bunch of chips on the table without wondering who was going to pick them up and what would be done with them.
IOW, Huff wants a large proportion of voters to know Huff considers them idiots.

Andrew Dabrowski says:

HuffPo is being disingenuous in pretending that politics isn’t already a subdivision of entertainment.