Can the Media Rig an Election?

Megan Leo

When the various presidential campaigns began in 2015, I decided that I would refrain from entering into public discourse on the subject, mostly in an attempt to avoid direct confrontation with family and friends. From a young age, I had been told by my parents to never discuss religion or politics in polite company, and I began this election cycle determined to be polite, even if that meant holding my tongue. However, as a consumer of media and a believer in the important role media plays in democracy, I cannot remain silent.  

There is an important question all consumers of media must ask: What role has the media played in this election? According to Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, the media is rigged and has colluded with Democrats to undermine his campaign. Less than half a year ago, other voices expressed extreme criticism of the media, saying that its near-constant coverage of Trump was to blame for his nomination as the GOP candidate.

It certainly may be true that the media is complicit in the rise of Trump. Since announcing his candidacy, Trump has received over two billion dollars worth of free coverage from various media outlets. Trump has dominated the news cycle since early on in the primaries, with his image and name plastered across most newspapers and website headlines. 

However, the media did not create Trump. Though Trump has his flaws, he has proven time and time again that he is a master of media. Throughout his campaign, Trump has used real-time marketing to remain a fixture in the national news-cycle. Particularly in his frequent use of Twitter, Trump often responds to current events. By inserting himself into the various narratives early on, and often before other politicians and political pundits have spoken on the subject, Trump ensures that his opinion will dominate the media conversation. While the media is not solely responsible for Trump’s unprecedented rise, it has certainly played a role in propping him up.

But now, as Election Day draws near, Trump claims that the media is rigged, and that he is the victim of a widespread media campaign to defeat him. In its essence, this claim charges mainstream media with skewing its coverage in order to engineer his defeat. Trump has been calling liberal media biased for a long time now, but his recent attacks against the media as a whole come only after several women have accused him of sexual assault, following the release of a 2005 tape in which Trump appears to brag about his ability to sexually assault women without consequence. In October, Trump has moved beyond merely leveling his accusations against liberal media; his current claims denounce all mainstream media.

Trump supported mass media attention until its coverage no longer worked to his advantage. But we still have to ask the question: is the media biased against Trump?

To answer this, I looked at various studies analyzing media coverage of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Throughout her campaign, the majority of Clinton’s media coverage has been widely negative. If negative media coverage had been one-sided, Trump would be absolutely justified in his accusations. However, this is not the case. The media has also covered Clinton’s scandals, involving the private use of email servers and potential conflicts of interest involving the Clinton Foundation. 

So where do we go from here? How, in this modern era, are we supposed to consume media? Journalists have biases, that much is certain. Personal biases will never disappear, because people are innately biased. As for the role of the press to be fair in its news coverage, it is the role of the editor to remove personal editorializing and gross biases from coming through in the interest of fair coverage. In recent days, many articles and broadcasts have spouted an anti-Trump narrative. But “anti-Trump” does not mean that the media is unfair. 

Trump is correct in his assumption that the majority of the press strongly dislikes him. This does not mean that mainstream media has hatched a widespread conspiracy to undermine Trump’s campaign and ensure that Clinton wins the election.