Politico senior writer Jack Shafer joined UPenn's Dick Polman for a talk on Trump

Media critic Jack Shafer doesn’t need to look at Twitter to know when a new Trump tweet drops. He can tell by the gasps, guffaws and murmurs that spread through the Politico newsroom.

“Everyone is twittering over the Twitter,” Shafer told the crowd of several dozen gathered to hear him speak at Penn’s Kelly Writers House last week. “It’s like a video game. [Trump]’s dropping power pills. Bright, shiny things for journalists to chase.”

He hears colleagues rushing to assess whatever outlandish statement or accusation or boast the tweet presents, forming their takes on how to write about the latest missive from the Republican presidential candidate: “Is it sexist? Racist? Any truth in it?”

But he doesn’t blame them for paying attention. Addressing the theme of the lunch talk, which was organized by Penn prof and NewsWorks columnist Dick Polman and loosely titled “Did the mainstream media help ‘create’ Donald Trump?”, Shafer clarified his stance on taking the bait.

“I’m not critical of journalists for chasing them. That’s what we do. We would be derelict in our duties if we ignored them,” he said.

What about the $2 billion or so in “free airtime” it’s been said Trump received, Polman wanted to know.

“I’m not very enamored of that number or finding,” Shafer shot back. The so-called “free coverage” included all the negative stories, he explained, comparing it to the “publicity” Volkswagen got from the emissions cheating scandal. More interesting than whether the press put Trump hits on page one too often, he said, is how the candidate managed to gain popularity at the same time.

“How did Trump marshal so much support with so much hostility and so much oppositional reporting?” he asked, in a tone that bordered on admiration. It was a rhetorical question, but one to which Shafer, as a media critic, has dedicated quite a bit of thought. So far, he’s come up with two main answers.

First, because Trump ran “an anti-media media campaign” like no one else in history, Shafer said.

Trump is far from the first to rail against the press, Shafer pointed out. Lyndon Johnson was always talking about a “credibility gap” and complaining that newspapers weren’t giving him a fair chance. Nixon’s “enemies list” was populated by journalists. A popular bumper sticker during George W. Bush’s campaign said “Annoy the media, vote for Bush.”

“So this is not new,” he noted, “but he’s taken it even further. He has isolated the press as his genuine rival.” He described the way Trump supporters chant insults at the press corps during rallies as “unprecedented.”

“Maybe the George Wallace campaign had this much vitriol,” Shafer said, “but no one before (Trump) has been able to capture and bottle it like this.”

Shafer likes DOTS. A lot.
Shafer likes DOTS. A lot. Credit: Danya Henninger

At Penn, most of the people listening while they munched on roast beef sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies appeared to be in their 50s, 60s or 70s (aside from one 42-year-old reporter tapping furiously on her laptop), and they nodded along as Shafer, 58, detailed the long history of presidential candidates and their media hangups.

There was also a row of students who’d filed in along the back wall, and after an older audience member blustered, “I find the mainstream media totally useless,” Polman made a plea.

“For the younger people, if you had to list five news outlets that are the most reliable,” he pressed Shafer, “which would they be?”

But the younger people (and the rest of us) were out of luck. “I guess I would reject the question,” Shafer said. “I strike that question, because even the best of the best fail.”

Shafer’s second main explanation for how Trump transcended negative coverage was his willingness to just say what he pleased, both at his rallies and on Twitter.

“He’s speaking from the heart — probably because he doesn’t have a brain,” Shafer joked. “But you can tell he really, truly believes whatever he says. Until tomorrow when he contradicts himself.”

Contrast that with Hillary, Shafer continued, whose strategists and advisors test and tweak and fine-tune everything she says or puts out. “We now know because of the Podesta emails that people are putting her tweets together with tweezers,” he said. “It’s predigested. It’s political pablum that doesn’t stir anybody.”

He decried this era as one of “too many spin doctors,” and suggested Trump was a beneficiary of a fracturing of the media market. “It looks like he’s dominating the world, but it’s like ‘The Walking Dead.’ It’s a popular show, but 30 years ago, it wouldn’t even have cracked the top five.

“If Trump loses,” Shafer prognosticated, “I think he’ll be unable to convey support to an heir.

“Of course, if he wins and his enforcers read what I’ve written about him,” he added with a sideways kind of smile, “I’ll have to give all this up and move to a farm in North Dakota.”

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...