White Noise: A New Era of Politicians Hijacking The News

There’s a scene in the movie “Gladiator” where General-turned-slave, Maximus (played by Russell Crowe), is worried he will be unfairly killed by the King during competition.

His slave master, Proximo, (a former slave who won his freedom), tells Maximus, “I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd, win your freedom.” 

Crowds are fickle things.

A small but loud crowd attracts interest. The noise draws a larger crowd. The larger crowd then attracts ever more people until, before long, it is a mob.

Aside from a gladiator arena, the political arena may be the biggest blood sport around. You have enemies who want to end you — and you have “friends” who may actually be worse than your so-called enemies.

And, just like the gladiator arena, politics is all about winning the crowd.

Win the crowd and nothing can stop you.

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We just saw that in the United States with Donald Trump.

It’s started slow…not many people took him seriously.

He said and did things most politicians would never say — primarily about immigrants — a message that clearly resonated with a certain American demographic.

He won a small but vocal crowd very early.

Once he had that crowd, the media had no choice but to cover him and take him seriously. Quite frankly, he hijacked the news. Or, as my friend — author and speaker David Meerman Scott calls it, newsjacking.

The more coverage Trump got, the larger the crowds became — and the cycle continued all the way to becoming the Republican Presidential candidate — and then with one final swing of his political sword — President.

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Photo Source: Peter Carr, The Journal News

David Meerman Scott followed the Presidential election closely from a marketing perspective and declared Trump a “marketing genius”.

“Donald Trump created a strong, memorable message from the moment he announced his candidacy a year and a half ago….Trump focused on real-time media, especially Twitter, and mega rallies all over the country. His tweets and the video of the rallies were reported in real-time by thousands of media outlets. Both of these approaches generated a reported $5 billion in free media for Trump….The revolution is happening. Resist at your peril.”

It was all about those crowds.  The media can’t ignore large formations of people.

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David isn’t alone in this opinion…although he was one of the first to voice it.

Norman Ornstein with the American Enterprise Institute says essentially the same in this column by veteran CBC journalist Neil Macdonald:

“It’s a devil of a dilemma for reporters. Candidates’ positions are legitimate news, particularly when they’re incendiary clickbait positions in an era of falling ad revenues. Trump’s crass insults sold newspapers and attracted eyeballs to screens. News outlets knew they were being used, but went along enthusiastically. Ornstein compares them to “puppies” fascinated with Trump’s “shiny things.”

So, Trump’s political disruption seems to have worked. It became too big to ignore and the more people joined in, the more coverage it got…creating a critical mass.

From a marketing and PR perspective, it was successful. Why pay for advertising when the news will cover you for free?

Now others have jumped on the bandwagon.

Just look North at Canadian Conservative leadership candidate, Kellie Leitch, who is a Trump supporter – and, like him – has quite literally wrapped herself in the flag.

She is already proof that Trump’s gladiator approach to political marketing wasn’t a fluke. It’s a strategy that can — and is — being duplicated.

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Kellie Leitch needs to get noticed in an already-crowded leadership race (13 candidates at the time this blog was written)

Unlike Trump, she is not a celebrity.

She does not have a pre-existing group of followers like Trump.

In fact, until this past year, she was essentially unknown to everyone aside from political and media insiders. She was a relatively unknown cabinet minister in the Stephen Harper government.

She has been in public life only five years.

So, this was going to be a real test of the Trump method.

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Photo Credit: Government of Canada

When Leitch announced she was running for the Conservative Leadership, the country responded with a collective yawn – if anything at all.

But around the same time it was becoming clear that Trump was a real challenger, Leitch started doing and saying things that seemed aligned with Trump.

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In a country where polling shows show the vast majority see Trump as bad for Canada, this move by Leitch was either politically brilliant or insane (it truly is a fine line).

It quickly proved to be clever given her goal of getting noticed by Conservatives in a very crowded leadership race. She needed to get noticed — and she did just that.

Leitch got more media in a day then she got collectively up to that point. Keep in mind, this is a leadership race — rarely covered by the media.

Her Twitter followers shot up.

Donations and members poured in.

Name recognition soared.

Then, when Trump won — Leitch went against most Canadians — including prominent members of her own party, stood alone — and applauded.

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“Tonight, our American cousins threw out the elites and elected Donald Trump as their next president. It’s an exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada.”

Most recently, Leitch called for the selling of the publicly-funded broadcaster, the CBC — often viewed as a polarizing, low-hanging fruit rallying cry for Conservatives — who use the term “lame-stream” media. This week, it was another issue that some would deem unbecoming of a national leadership campaign: she announced she would legalize pepper spray. The media had no choice but to cover and it got lots of social media action.

Each time, more media coverage. More followers.

Win the crowd. Win the race.

And like Trump — her media coverage continues to overwhelm her competition.

And, it’s not just Liberals who are flabbergasted by her approach — most in her own Conservative party disagree with her positions.

Ironically, this conflict with her own party is giving her even more media attention — which increases the probability of getting her message out to base supporters.

Need metrics to back up the rhetoric that the Trump Method works?

A recent poll shows Leitch has gone from being unknown to the top of the polls in the Conservative leadership race — in a large field of experienced candidates.

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I know some journalists who are frustrated by this. Even negative news coverage fuels the fire when it comes to this kind of PR strategy. You honestly can’t lose as long you’ve identified there are enough people out there who support your positions.

Increasingly, columnists and pundits are saying the media needs to ignore Kellie Leitch.

But, that’s not how it works — and shows an ignorance of journalism — something the CBC’s Neil Macdonald referenced recently:

“…Kelly Leitch is running what amounts to a one-issue campaign, warning Canadians about radical immigrants and inveighing, Trump-style, against ‘the elites.’ It’s a transparent ploy to achieve name recognition, and the Canadian media is diligently helping her achieve it.”

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Photo Source: Vice

This is where this marketing strategy works.

Even though Trump and Leitch supporters slam the media — the media is their best weapon. And, there’s nothing journalists can do about it.

Kellie Leitch is a legitimate candidate. She is a doctor. She is a former cabinet minister. She’s technically a part of the so-called “elite” that she slams on a daily basis. And now she’s leading in the polls. The crowds are growing.

The media, ethically, can’t ignore her. They report the news.

They can be confused by the traction — and they can write damning editorial and columns — but the news is the news.

In fact, to ignore her would only fuel her base supporters — many of whom, like Trump supporters, believe the media has an inherent left-wing bias. Ignoring her events without just cause would only validate that belief.

In the absence of any great battles within her own leadership race, Leitch’s campaign — like Trump’s — has decided to pick a fight with the media and secure her base. It’s a great way to raise money as we saw recently. Tell me if this doesn’t look familiar…

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The media has a real problem on its hands. People like Trump, Leitch and others have figured out what appears to be a winning formula.

In a recent insightful column, Conservative political strategist Jaime Watt made a point of highlighting the challenge the media has — and suggests they have taken the bait:

“It is depressing to realize that so many people feel so disenfranchised and frustrated by the uniformity of the viewpoints found in the media that entire political campaigns can be run successfully against those views, almost alone. Traditional media outlets hold that some candidates are so dangerous and their views are so reprehensible and problematic that they have a duty to cover them as critically as possible. What is troubling about that perspective is it makes the media an active player in the game, rather than an objective observer. Policy proposals become tribal, supporters become targets, and the divides between political camps widen. Instead of dispassionately observing and criticizing ideas, mainstream media has allowed itself to fall into the pit of active engagement against certain candidates.”

And, taking the “bait” so to speak — is what drives campaigns like this.

That’s why they call it “click-bait“.

Getting noticed in political campaigns these days is all about the clicks…or page views on websites and social media.

Lots and lots of clicks.

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As you’ve seen in the media time and time again, the media owners have a cash crunch – dealing with declining readership, listenership and viewership.

Journalists are being laid off by the day, further weakening the media product like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, an over-the-top, sensational, divisive political candidate is welcomed in the media — controversy sells, generates online clicks and makes money.

Need proof?

The NY Times is dealing with a surge in subscriptions.

During the debates, there were record viewers to see Trump — and broadcasters charged record amounts for commercial time.

Reporters are increasingly being encouraged and rewarded for producing stories that get “clicks” and draw online traffic (online traffic = ad revenue). I feel for my journalist friends. If I were still in the media, I’d be losing my mind over this.

That being said, there is a problem that requires a solution and these are difficult times in newsrooms as they wrestle with what to do.

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Rob Ford on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, ABC

The ironic part is that it would appear as though Trump didn’t invent this political marketing strategy of “straight talk” aimed at the alt-right.

Remember late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. The guy who said outrageous things and did more outrageous things like smoke crack on video…the guy who appeared on American late-night TV and apparently was the only person not in on the joke.

Despite his comments and issues, Ford was still very popular with his “Ford Nation” before dying.

In fact, the smart person who figured out the winning wedge politics formula and got Ford elected — is also running Kellie Leitch’s campaign. He was running this kind of campaign back when Trump was still sitting with Omarosa and Gary Busey on the Apprentice.

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Pauline Hanson (photo source: Sarah Marshall)

Rest assured. There are more coming….because the strategy works to attract the media, mobilize your core supporters and cut through the campaign white noise.

For example, keep an eye on Australian One Nation leader and Trump-like candidate Pauline Hanson in the coming months…you ain’t seen nothing yet.

In recently calling for an immigration ban, Hanson said, “Go back to where you came from” and said Australia was at risk of being “swamped by Muslims whose culture is incompatible with our own”. And, like Leitch — Hanson’s messaging is resonating as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald – with party support quadrupling since July.

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If you find this kind of media manipulation upsetting, rest assured so do serious journalists (this differentiation of ‘serious’ journalists is key as not all reporters are created equally). They are fully aware of what’s happening in terms of how their media outlets are torn over this new strategy. They know their bosses and owners want clicks — they want sales — and that’s making things very awkward for the dedicated scribes who want to cover news that matters — and not necessarily that which goes ‘viral’.

In fact, as you see in the image above, the Columbia Journalism Review recently wrote an article that offers tips for American journalists covering Trump from Canadian journalists who covered Rob Ford.

Here’s a portion from that article:

The similarities between how these two politicians have approached the media is uncanny, says Daniel Dale, a Toronto Star journalist who covered Ford when he was in office and is now writing about Trump from Washington. Both politicians repeatedly and directly attacked particular media outlets, used the media to rile up their base, personally attacked journalists, and claim everything reported about them is false. “This is all very familiar to me,” says Dale.

Now with the trend apparently continuing with politicians like Kellie Leitch and Pauline Hanson, it’s clear journalists will have their hands full with the struggles associated with this kind of double-edged sword: their bosses want clicks and even critical stories of these kinds of candidates give them what they want in name recognition.

This struggle is the real battle to watch in the next few years.

And it won’t be pretty.