Ever stop to wonder exactly how the media can shape an election, intentionally or unintentionally? It’s remarkably simple: the best politicians know how to use the media to their own ends.
In January of 2004, I was in a hotel room in Bend, Oregon watching the Iowa Democratic caucuses on the TV and eating Mongolian stir-fry. Anyone familiar with the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucus will immediately realize I was about to see an interesting sideline to US political history take place live and in color.
Remember this guy?
His name is Howard Dean and, at the time, he was considered one of the big movers and shakers in the upcoming Presidential election. I watched his speech at the caucus, primarily because I was curious about the guy people were calling a Rockefeller Republican (socially liberal, but fiscally conservative – it is actually a thing) and a guy who was so adamantly opposed to the ongoing war in Iraq.
So, he gets up and delivers his speech and God damn was that guy excited. Most candidates act like they’re excited, but Dean really was into it. He was having the time of his life and you could tell he actually believed in what he was saying.
And then, while I was munching on something unidentifiable, but fairly tasty, he threw out that scream that everyone has made fun of for over twelve years now. At the time, I remember thinking, “Damn. He’s genuinely excited.” He had some good ideas and I was leaning toward issuing my relatively worthless vote for him in the New Mexico primary. NOTE: NM votes really late in the primaries. Usually, by the time we get to vote, the primaries are pretty much decided.
So, I was feeling kind of proud of myself and generally happy that the Democrats might field someone who could take on Bush. I watched the rest, including the lackluster speeches from Kerry and Edwards, and even watched some of the final media interviews. And when Dean got a chance to talk to the media, my heart sank. One of the first things I remember him saying was something to the effect of “You guys in the media have been pretty mean.”
Right then and there, I knew his campaign was over. You never let the media smell blood in the water. No matter they say, you rise above it or ignore it. You can scream and yell about what jerks they are when you’re in private, but when you’re actually being interviewed, you never let them know they’ve gotten to you.
My guess was right; Howard Dean did not get the 2004 Democratic nomination. That went to this guy:
Whoops, wrong pic.
Howard Dean’s failed performance in the primaries was largely chalked up to that famous scream. It was the talk of the media for months. Someone even made a Howard Dean sound board so you could sit at your computer and listen to Howard Dean scream. Dean himself admitted it wasn’t the classiest move he could have made. But I have a different theory about why he got pummeled in the media and that was because he let them know they got to him.
Well, that and the Democrats wanted someone statesmanlike to take on the young, folksy twang of George W. Bush. Personally, I don’t think the DNC was ever behind Dean; he was too different from them. I don’t think they were behind Edwards, either, though. Kerry, while not the most exciting person to listen to, was experienced and brought an older, wiser feeling to the election and that’s what the DNC figured would win.
Flash forward twelve years and we some similar themes, albeit with different results. This time around, instead of Kerry vs. Bush, we’ve got Clinton vs. Trump and, damn, has this one gotten crazy. As of right now, one of the first things I look for when I read the news every morning is “what batshit insane thing did Trump say today?”
Ah, there we go. Second Amendment folks can take care of the Hillary problem. That’s better than any cup of coffee for waking you up in the morning.
Nutty as this election cycle has been, it’s interesting to see some parallels with different results from the ’04 election. Dean went after the media early on and folded like a bad poker player when they went after him. Trump, on the other hand, went on the offensive. The extremely offensive, some (including Megyn Kelly) would say.
And that’s what’s really interesting. Trump – who has zero political experience, almost no filters, no real grasp of international politics, and is willing to go on the warpath over the slightest thing – is an absolute master of the media. They love to hate him and they love to repeat whatever insane thing he recently said. He could walk on stage and fart for 45 minutes and there would be an endless series of articles about “Trump’s Fart: What Did It Mean?”
And, amazingly, his followers would inhale that fart and claim it was the last breath of Freedom or some damned thing.
It’s easy to forget that Howard Dean had followers before the media destroyed him. He was, in some ways, an Internet sensation. Sure, he wasn’t in Trump’s league when it came to minions, but he was hardly unknown and unloved. The main difference, other than the fact that Dean had policies that didn’t involve building a wall around Mexico and filling it with water, was that Dean couldn’t manipulate the media like Trump can so a lot of people never figured out what Dean was really up to.
On the other hand, everyone knows exactly what Trump wants to do and they’re still in love with him. Which just goes to show there’s really no such thing as bad publicity. He can keep whining about the election being rigged (it’s not) or the way the Republican party is mistreating him (they are, but for very good reasons) and the media will dutifully report on how atrocious a person he is, his minions will continue to lick it up, and it won’t make a damned bit of difference come November.
What I find interesting about the media and Trump is how they’re doing his bidding without even realizing it. Every time they print a piece about Trump’s craziness and how terrible it is, he wins whatever sick little game he’s playing. And he’s doing it by just being himself.
Hillary Clinton, in her own way, is using the media to her advantage, too. All she has to do is shut up and let Trump talk. He’s already got his followers and is unlikely to gain or lose more over the next few months, but Hillary is busily picking off the disgusted Republicans and her lead will continue to grow.
And that’s how the media is influencing this election. Dean capitulated when the media spanked him. Trump is busily spanking the media back and giving them enough fodder to keep his name at the top of the headlines. Hillary, on the other hand, is doing her best to ignore the worst the media can throw at her. Three different ways of manipulating the message and the media.
Learning to the use the media is the first thing every politician needs to master. Trump gets it, even if his messages aren’t always (or ever) positive. Hillary knows when to keep her head down and when to rise up. Dean completely misunderstood how to deal with the media.
In the end, we’ll find out on the second Tuesday in November who did the best job of using the media.
Check out Howard Dean’s scream here