On the fateful night of the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, presidential candidate Howard Dean gave a speech that would go down in history. In a passionate moment, as he promised to take his campaign across the country, Dean let loose a cry — forever immortalized as the “Dean Scream” — that members of the media repeated ad nauseam.
At the time, it seemed like a death sentence for his campaign. CNN called it “The scream that doomed Howard Dean.” Talk shows called it his “I have a Scream” speech, and he did indeed go on to lose the nomination to Sen. John Kerry.
Listen to the scream again, though, and it’s hard to say exactly why it was so damning. Compared to the smorgasbord of outrageous claims, juvenile insults, and sassy comebacks that dominate the 2016 presidential election, Dean’s scream (really more of a yelp) seems inconsequential.
What is becoming increasingly clear in this election cycle is that Dean’s media treatment was not an isolated incident. There’s another high energy, colorful presidential candidate whose run for the White House is being defined by how the media portrays him, but that’s where the comparisons between Howard Dean and Donald Trump stop.
Because while Trump’s campaign has also received outsized media attention, it’s been more of a good luck charm than a curse. With every bigoted statement or childish outburst comes more media coverage, and with that more support and voters. Trump is sort of like the Hydra, and every time you try to attack him, it only seems to make him stronger.
Trump can mock a disabled reporter and face essentially zero consequences, while Dean’s scream was heralded as the biggest gaffe of the 2004 election cycle. Dean’s campaign was already losing steam when the scream happened, and neither it nor the media’s zealous focus on it likely mattered in the end. Media attention doesn’t make or break a candidate on its own, but it sets the narrative by which each candidate wins or loses. And for a candidate who bases his entire identity on winning, the narrative naturally follows suit.
Media narratives are usually one-dimensional. Mediated, intricate looks at candidates don’t bring viewers in; soundbites, gaffes, and memes do. Therefore, quieter candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich don’t fare well with general voters as their platform is built around avoiding the very things voters see the most.
Whether done intentionally or not, mainstream media has more than just a distorting effect on voting patterns, it’s essentially the dominant force in how people decide to vote, which means all media coverage is inherently political. News stations don’t simply report the news; they also decide it. So, when CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC choose to report on Trump’s outbursts and controversies, they are sending a message that those outbursts are newsworthy.
Every news story and report is an active and conscious choice, and those who aren’t willing to take responsibility for that shouldn’t be in the business of reporting the news at all. If news companies and journalists use the defense that they “only report what people want to see,” then they should stop calling themselves news and own up to what they really are: entertainment and celebrity gossip.
At the end of the day, celebrity is all that Trump is. He’s not someone deserving of outrage or anger because his opinions are so grossly disastrous that they should have never been taken seriously in the first place. The reason we all feel burned out and fatigued when talking about him is because it feels like it’s so obvious. It feels as though we’re trying to write a 200-page proof for 1+1=2, and his supporters are responding that numbers are for losers and we should build a wall to keep out mathematicians.
Trump doesn’t need to spend money on ads and TV appearances. As long as he remains the loudest voice in the room, mainstream news provides him with all the air time he needs. His campaign is the epitome of “fake it till you make it”; what seemed like a bad joke quickly snowballed into real support, real voters, and a real coalition of Americans who want Trump to become president.
One year ago, it seemed unimaginable that Trump could become the Republican nominee. Now, there’s a small but very real chance he could become president, a chance built entirely on Trump’s confidence and the willingness of the media to broadcast it.
Unlike Dean, Trump isn’t hurt by bad publicity, he’s fueled by it. And if you hope to sway Trump supporters by using reason or showing the awful things he’s said, it may be time to rethink your strategy. You might be doing more harm than good.
Reach writer Alex Bruell at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BruellAlex