When Donald Trump was first elected president in 2016, I couldn’t have cared less.
I was a young middle schooler living in South Korea, far removed from the political commotion of Washington, D.C. On election night, I saw a little graphic on the NBC website, displaying the red and blue hues of the election map and glanced briefly at the difference in electoral and popular votes.
I simply said “huh” — and moved on.
Obviously, a lot has changed since 2016.
As I watch Trump’s 2024 campaign progress, I’m not that small, naive kid anymore. I’m a student at Georgetown University, surrounded by passionate friends and professors in the nation’s capital, the heart of U.S. politics. And every morning to start the day, I open the New York Times and read the day’s political coverage.
Comparing coverage of Trump’s 2016 and 2024 campaigns, I’ve found one similarity: the ways in which the media portrays Trump’s character and campaign. This coverage of personality over policy has me concerned that I’m watching the 2016 election unfold all over again and that the U.S. media is repeating its mistakes.
Let’s revisit 2016 for a moment.
At the time, I didn’t consume much media, and my main sources of news were South Korean media outlets, which were nowhere near as detailed as the American political coverage I consume today. Yet looking back to the 2016 election, I realized two things.
One: I knew Trump really well as a person. Or at least, I thought I did.
Too many times to count, I watched coverage of his vulgar language, his xenophobic stance on immigration and, of course, his infamous Access Hollywood tape. I understood enough of his troubling past and controversial statements to make a concrete judgement on his character.
But amid his problematic persona, I came to a second realization: I didn’t know what Trump wanted to do once he took office.
I got so caught up in Trump’s poor personal character that his campaign promises didn’t catch my eye. I never read much beyond his usual “build the wall” or “drain the swamp” dogma.
My logic was that it was simply stupid to vote for Trump because one would be voting for his racist, sexist and misogynistic values. I believed that Trump was an inherently flawed individual, and therefore an unfit president.
The media was later found to be guilty of excessively focusing on Trump’s persona. Ballotpedia research on the 2016 election found that “the news outlets included in this study [CNN, Fox News, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and the Washington Post] seem to have a fascination with Trump’s character, lifestyle, rhetoric and overall presence.”
This hyperfocus on character minimized any coverage of Trump’s policies. For example, the same study indicates that the media regularly reported on Trump’s controversial comments on Mexico rather than his actual immigration plans.
So far in 2024, the media has chosen to highlight Trump’s legal woes.
Take the New York Times, for example. On the outlet’s website, there is a page dedicated to coverage on Trump. On Sept. 4, the first 13 articles on the page were all related to Trump’s various court cases, ranging from articles on his booking in Georgia to his legal strategies to a staggering three pieces on his mugshot.
At long last, in the fourteenth article came a description of where Trump stands on key issues in the 2024 election.
With Trump already avoiding challenges to his campaign by choosing not to participate in either of the first two Republican presidential primary debates, his campaign promises are difficult to discern, limiting his public presence.
This lack of visibility limits the ability of the public to evaluate Trump as a candidate instead of Trump as a person. As a result, the media must prioritize reporting on Trump’s policy positions. Although Trump’s voice often lends itself to newsworthy content, the media has a responsibility to shift the focus from past drama to future outcomes.
If this status quo persists, voters will again be left with a lack of strong policy reporting, much like 2016.
Students must actively seek out the platforms of presidential candidates come 2024 in order to be informed on the election. Instead of solely gossiping about candidates’ personal lives, we must question their policy positions.
P.T. Barnum famously said, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” — and in 2016, that was certainly the case for Trump. The leaked recordings, politically incorrect statements and general misinformation all helped Trump to attain massive coverage across mainstream media.
As the 2024 election emerges, all I hope for is that the American media and public, specifically students at Georgetown, learn from their past mistakes and choose to focus on policy rather than personality.
Haan Jun (Ryan) Lee is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. This is the first installment of his column, Politics in the Media.