MATTHEW O’NEILL. How the media’s fixation with Trump was exported. (The Interpreter 23.1.2019)

The Trump administration has hurtled into its third year and the media circus that’s trailed the 45th president continues apace. Australians who didn’t tune out of the news over the summer holidays were fed a diet of chaos and controversy out of Washington, with the ongoing partial government shutdown featured prominently in bulletins nationwide.  

Even those of us who sought sanctuary in ABC Radio’s cricket coverage couldn’t escape the impasse on Capitol Hill, as the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen noted:

ABC Grandstand just broke for a news update. Lead item was Trump and Congress failing to come to agreement on wall w Mexico. Genuine q: what criteria were used to determine that this story should lead, or for that matter be in the top 5 stories for Australia right now?

As a journalist with ABC NewsRadio, a part of my role involves producing the network’s national bulletins. Radio is a particularly reactive medium, and a significant development in an ongoing story will often see it lead the next news update, I suspect this was the rationale in this instance.

But I think there is an important discussion to be had about the volume of Trump coverage in this country and the relevance of the White House saga to Australians. Media outlets have finite resources, so it’s worth considering how the preponderance of news about this one man could be shaping our understanding of the world and eclipsing stories elsewhere.

The American media’s fixation with Trump has been well-documented. A RealClearPolitics analysis, published last month, found that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC have provided him with, on average, three times as much coverage as his predecessor. Data collected by the ABC found that at times these channels dedicate more than half their daily airtime to him. These days it’s not uncommon to open up the New York Times or the Washington Post to see 15 or more reporters with stories on the White House.

Trump is an extraordinary story, but in America there are legitimate concerns about how his ability to suck up airtime is drowning out other important news.

To be sure, Trump is an extraordinary story, but in America there are legitimate concerns about how his ability to suck up airtime is drowning out other important news. The media cycle is now so driven by what the president says and does that issues he doesn’t touch upon are often neglected.

This is one of the reasons given for the true scale of Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico only being reported months after the event. It’s also been blamed for what some say is the inattention given to the deep social challenges America faces, such as stagnant wages, falling life expectancy, and a surge in drug overdoses – issues that ironically were a factor in propelling Trump to office.

As a journalist in Australia, one of the challenges I’ve faced has been to build radio bulletins that feature diverse international news, because so many overseas events are seen through a Trump prism.

Australia’s foreign minister reacting to a controversial White House statement on Israel could be followed by a story on the president’s negative reception at an international summit. This could precede troubling economic data that’s reported in the context of the US-China trade war, which might come before a high-profile Republican criticising Trump for not taking a tough stance on a violent crackdown overseas.

Of course, given the major security, economic, and cultural ties between our two countries, it’s understandable that Australian journalists are showing considerable interest in the 45th president. However, much like in America, I think this level of media saturation is crowding out important stories here too – international news that’s more relevant to our audiences.

China’s naval expansion, its debt levels, and influence peddling in the Pacific will probably have more serious implications for our country’s future than Stormy Daniels, yet I suspect the latter garnered more coverage last year. The Rohingya crisis – involving almost half a million children living in what is now the world’s biggest refugee camp – seems to have fallen out of the headlines here as well, yet this story of human movement is far more relevant to Australia than what the White House might be doing about a Central American migrant caravan.

And while many of us have heard about how the president’s rhetoric is empowering American far-right groups, the growing clout of Indonesian Islamists is another case of dangerous extremism that’s probably of more immediate concern here at home.

I’m not arguing for us to avert our eyes from events in Washington. But I do think it’s timely for all of us in the media to reflect upon our editorial decision-making processes. Not every overseas news item needs a White House angle. International summits, China’s economy, and violent crackdowns can be strong stories in and of themselves, and media outlets don’t always have to organise their international coverage to emphasise Trump.

Furthermore, not everything the president says or does is news. Does Trump pounding his fist on a table or being rude reveal anything new about his character or governing style?

Our audience must stay at the heart of our work. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of allowing the US president to become a default lead on slow news days. We must examine what else is happening overseas and seek out other stories that could have meaning for the lives of our viewers, readers, and listeners.

The views expressed are those of the author alone.


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3 Responses to MATTHEW O’NEILL. How the media’s fixation with Trump was exported. (The Interpreter 23.1.2019)

  1. I agree with you Greg but the larger point is the move to the right by the Democrats and other former social democratic parties such as the ALP under Hawke and Keating etc. This propelled the Republicans and Australian Liberals even further right and they are now falling off the cliff.

    The hopeful sign is the candidacy of Elizabeth Warren whose early signal is designed to get in first with Hillary’s college girl base. At home Bill Shorten faces the problem of moving to the left while Hawke and Keating are still alive and their era is portrayed in Labor lore as a period of positive “reform.”

    Bill understands the problem better than most and is well placed to deal with it because he is clever and every bone in his body is political. Labor will command the lower house and party insiders tell me they are confident of managing the Senate if the Greens hold their numbers.

  2. Greg Bailey says:

    The media certainly love satirising Donald Trump because he has the appearance of a buffoon and arguably acts like one. However, since he was elected he has really been a distraction from the real problem, which is the Republican Party itself. Always a right wing party it shifted much further to the right in response to the first Clinton victory in 1992. Since then it has exhibited all sorts of anti-democratic tendencies and refuses even to confront the most crucial problems facing America.

    If Mike Pence was to become president the situation could become far worse as he would probably hold the GOP together much better than Trump who seems to ruffle everyone’s feathers. Let us hope that the media move away from Trump and focus on the real culprit in American political and cultural history: the GOP.

  3. Greg Bailey says:

    The media love Trump because of his apparent unpredictability and his buffoon-like appearance. In addition, much of the main stream media can bask in the glow produced in considering they are taking a higher moral stance than him, made easier by his chronic lying.

    However, he really is a distraction and in feeding this distraction the media needs condemnation. Attention on Trump is distracting focus on the real problem: the extreme right attitudes which have pervaded the Republican Party over the past two decades. These attitudes have continued the (lack of) policies that guarantee a repeat of the GFC, that impoverish the mid-western and the southern states in favour of speculative finance generated by Wall Street, and have been utterly remiss in respect of Climate Change.

    Arguably Mike Pence would be far worse than Trump because he would be more skillful in fulfilling the GOP’s far right agenda in a manner that would be quieter than Trump, hence more effective.

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