Donald Trump’s flight to NYC on 3 April 2023 from Mar-a-Lago, Florida, seemed initially to have all the making of an extraordinary media event. The press was out in force. UK’s Sky covered it continuously, with ‘breaking news’ announcements, such as “Trump Force One has just entered the airspace over North Carolina”! Truly extraordinary coverage, reminiscent of covering Queen Elizabeth moving by carriage through London, or by some accounts, following O.J.’s low speed police chase on the 91 Freeway in LA on June 17, 1994.
That said, flying across the East Coast and with maximum security precautions, no remarkably large crowds formed along the route (a flight). Nevertheless the media coverage defied easy explanation and seemed to signal the beginning of an even bigger deal. From the end of the former president’s court appearance to his return home, the excitement ebbed among both his supporters and his detractors.
For a time, as suggested above, the excitement seemed justified. Viewing of television news about the caravan of cars and the flight to the indictment on that day was surprisingly large – orders of magnitude above standard primetime viewing figures. Viewership went into the millions rather than the hundreds of thousands across the major US news broadcasting outlets, such as Fox News, MSNBC, CNN with the controversial conservative commentator Tucker Carlson attracting 4.2 million viewers. But the next day, after the charges were read, it fizzled.
These two days left me with questions. First, how can we explain the political communication chemistry of Trump? Secondly, was there something about the nature or presentation of this specific event that created this buzz, even if short-lived? However, in the aftermath of the District Attorney’s press conference, given the buzz visibly diminished, another question arose: Why did this momentum diffuse so rapidly?
Trump’s Personal Attributes and Strategies?
Some pundits put it down to his unique personal style since his TV appearances on The Apprentice, but surely there is a more general explanation from the political communication bookshelf. I asked academics in the field of political communication how they would explain this. What do you suggest I read or understand? No answers.
However, many have written on Trump’s communication, and at least one book, by Marco Morini (2020), has focused on his political communication. Morini identifies four aspects of Trump’s communication, including: his inclination to communicate directly to the public, rather than through intermediaries, such as on social media; his practive of being in a continuing – ‘permanent’ – campaign mode; his ability to perform, even able to clown around for the media; and his often-incendiary populist rhetoric. He links this with the problems tied to US media systems, such as the weaknesses of journalism. He develops these points to explain how Trump is able to personally ‘build the [news] agenda and constantly [be] in the spotlight’ (Morini 2020: xii). I accept these observations, but also wondered if the staging of the event was also a factor, particularly since Trump was relatively silent albeit visible during these two days.
The Staging of a News Event?
This was an historic occasion. The indictment and possible arrest of a former President of the US was historic. He is famous and a divisive figure. There might not have been equally compelling news competing with his travel. It occurred across the news day thus enabling continuous coverage. There was a great deal of marketing of this day over the preceding weeks. All these factors might have come into play, but I also wondered if the event conformed to the aspects of what Daniel Dayan and the late Elihu Katz (1992) called a ‘media event’? It seems to me that the most plausible explanation for the rise and fall of coverage and public interest might be best explained by its relationship to a media event.
Katz and Dayan (1992) found that televised events – broadcasts that brought families together in their living rooms to watch TV – tended to conform to one of three ideal types, which they called: a ‘contest’, such as a presidential debate; a ‘conquest’, such as the moon landing; or a ‘coronation’, such as the Queen Elizabeth’s coronation or the homecoming of General Douglas MacArthur. They add that the magic of a good fairy tale is that it combines all three in a sequence, moving from a contest to a conquest to a coronation.
The indictment began as a contest of a former president faced with charges of hiding hush-money paid to a former adult film star, Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels. A Republican Representative Majorie Taylor-Green compared the possible arrest of Donald Trump to that of Jesus Christ (Schama 2023). So, when it came before a sitting New York District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, it had all the trappings of an historic contest.
However, all did not go well. Video cameras were not allowed in the court room. Just a few still photographers were permitted in until the hearing began. It became a media event that could not be viewed by the public.
And when the DA read his indictment, he noted 35 counts of misrepresenting financial transactions, leaving many in the audience bewildered. Legal experts and pundits began to see the case as weak, such as in questioning whether each of the charges was serious enough to pursue, such as endorsing a check, and the legitimacy of tying these offenses to an effort to influence the outcome of an election, which is what politics is about. And Trump was silenced by the judge, through a gagging order, leaving him tired and saying little after his appearance beyond insulting the judge. Adding to this anti-climactic two days, the trial was expected to go on for months if not years. So far, no fairy tale for Stormy Daniels, the DA, or Donald Trump. It spelled the absence of a real media event.
In concluding, I must add that Elihu always emphasized that following the script to a media event, like a contest, or a fairy tale is not an automatic media event. Many try to create the magic of the most dramatic media events only to find them fail to bring families together in their living rooms. The narrative of a media event is not sufficient in itself as illustrated by Trump’s travel to and from NYC to Mar-a-Lago, Florida.
Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz (1992), Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Marco Morini (2020), Lessons from Trump’s Political Communication: How to Dominate the Media Environment. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.
Simon Schama (2023), ‘Behind Trump’s legal theatre lurk threats to the republic’, The Financial Times, Opinion, p. 11.