By Siobhan Plowman
If there’s anyone who’s had their fair share of media attention, it’s Trump.
This man hardly needs an introduction; many know him as the 2016 American Presidential candidate, real estate mogul, billionaire businessman, reality TV star. Misogynist. Hero. Racist pig.
Whatever you choose to call him, it cannot be denied that Donald Trump is perhaps the most publicised figure of 2016. This man is everywhere.
Over the course of Trump’s presidential campaign, his representation and characterisation in the media has grown increasingly negative. The portrayal of Trump as a misogynist, in particular, can be said to permeate the current media landscape (late 2016).
This fairly recent but prevalent representation began to firmly establish itself in the media around mid-2016, as damaging allegations and information about his past began to materialise in increasing numbers — coinciding well with some particularly sexist statements on his behalf (such as his controversial view on abortion, or the Alicia Machado incident in late September). This has all seemed to culminate in the recent October emergence of the 2005 bus recording – which in turn spurred several women (at this stage, eleven) to come forward with allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Close analysis of several journalism pieces – a news journalism piece from news.com.au, a views journalism piece from The Brisbane Times and a cartoon from the Creators Syndicate – suggests that this representation is carried across the current media landscape as a whole; both news and views-style media, national and international.
Trump wasn’t necessarily represented in this way to begin with.
A Google News search of US headlines in 2010 using the keywords ‘Donald Trump’ reveals titles such as ‘‘The Apprentice’ premieres tonight: Donald Trump says to prepare for ‘the best boardrooms we’ve ever done’ (Entertainment Weekly, 16/09/2010) or ‘Billionaire speaks out: Donald Trump’ (Forbes, 19/03/2010).
Search again in late 2016, and you’ll find headlines such as ‘A 10th woman accuses Donald Trump of inappropriate touching’ (New York Times, 20/10/16); ‘WATCH: Donald Trump Walks Out of Interview After Question About Being ‘Labeled a Racist’ and ‘Called a Sexist’ (PEOPLE.com, 20/10/16); and ‘Another Woman Says Donald Trump Groped Her: ‘I Felt Intimidated and Powerless’’ (Time, 20/10/16).
Yes, these are headlines published at a time when a Presidential candidate is accused of sexual assault; but as newsworthy as the issue is, there seems to be a common pattern in the way the media portrays the topic and the man involved. It appears there has been a fundamental shift in the media to a point where many pieces, written both objectively and subjectively, aim to characterise and define Trump as a certain individual: one who assaults women and is sexist. The headlines above, for example, cite terms such as ‘Another woman’, ‘A 10th woman’, in an attempt to create a list of ‘endless’ victims; and use words intended to be especially graphic such as ‘groped’ and ‘inappropriate touching’. Words such as ‘labeled’, ‘called’, and ‘accuses’ imply that Trump is inherently guilty. They all position the reader to see the same negative representation of Trump. It is very rare to find a piece that would cast suspicion or doubt upon the women who have come forward.
The method of this portrayal varies. Some articles, such as ‘18 Real Things Donald Trump has Actually Said About Women’ in the Huffington Post and The Telegraph’s ‘Donald Trump sexism tracker’ simply ‘sit back’ and present Trump’s actions in a somewhat factual manner, often in a list format; in the hope that Trump’s actions alone will be enough to horrify readers. Others, such as these pieces from the LA Times, The Courier-Mail and the SBS use Trump as a launchpad topic to discuss broader sexual assault or sexism issues, in society or in politics, which often, intentionally or not, positions Trump as the symbol or representative of these issues.
Even the images used in many articles regarding Trump seem to be specifically selected in order to portray a certain image of the candidate. Many of them show Trump getting close and personal to women, often with what appears to be a leering expression on his face. Trump is often positioned in a dominant stance, in contrast with the woman who is usually in a relatively more vulnerable position. These pointed images can usually be found at the very forefront of the article, beneath the headline, intended to have maximum impact on readers.
In some cases Trump is looking directly at the camera, which positions him to appear intimidating and/or threatening.
Now let’s take a look at our first in-depth analysis; an opinion piece titled ‘Tape shows disgusting Donald Trump at his sexist, misogynist worst’, which appeared in The Brisbane Times on the 9th October 2016. Author Paul McGeough instantly makes his central claim known, stating it explicitly in the very first paragraph:
‘This is disgusting. The unearthing of a 2005 recording of Republican candidate Donald Trump at his sexist, misogynist worst surely puts him beyond the pale for even more voters — women and men.’
This is a hybrid claim: one, that Trump is a misogynist, and two, that his sexist nature has been so exposed by this incident that it is likely to damage his campaign beyond repair. The fact that McGeough has explicitly articulated this claim indicates that he felt the need to state it clearly – that he assumes a certain number of his audience may not share the same view, and will be initially reluctant. While McGeough certainly doesn’t hide his viewpoint, he backs it with enough evidence and justification to classify this as an argument rather than simply an opinion piece. This claim is primarily evaluative, as it represents McGeough’s own value judgement, however it can also be classified as factual (he is trying to prove that Trump is a misogynist and that his campaign is ‘done for’) and to an extent causal (he contends that the tape has caused this response).
The article is permeated with communicative workings that portray Trump as a misogynist. To begin with, McGeough uses a number of appeals to popular opinion.
‘surely puts him beyond the pale for even more voters’
‘a poor attempt to normalise what for many veers towards criminal conduct’.
‘And it confirms the darkest fears of so many in the GOP who opposed his nomination’
‘As senior GOP figures lined up to announce they would not longer vote for Trump or called for him to step down’
His continued use of terms such as ‘so many’ and ‘even more’ subtly imply that the majority of people dislike Trump. McGeough backs this up with further appeals to authority and fact:
‘Even before the video came to light, Trump was seriously on the nose with women voters in particular – a recent Economist/YouGov poll showed that 68 per cent of female voters viewed Trump as either ‘somewhat unfavourably’ or ‘very unfavourably’.’
‘“This one will cause real damage,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz said.’
‘Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, predicted the video would sink Trump’s candidacy.’
Verifiable facts and statements from authoritative figures are often an effective strategy as they add credibility to an argument.
The article is full of impassioned quotes from senior Republican figures condemning Trump, including Mitch McConnell, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Mark Kirk, Jon Huntsman, Reince Priebus, Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, and Mike Murphy. McGeough presents these damning quotes one after the other, as if to bombard readers with the sheer number of them. These appeals to popular opinion are a deliberate attempt to sway readers. As human beings, we generally feel inclined to side with the majority – and this is what McGeough is toying with here.
The article is loaded with evaluative presumptions that characterise Trump, such as ‘bragged’, ‘fired off a statement’, ‘him being his worst self’ and ‘his sexist, misogynist worst’. These phrases are passed off casually as fact, with no attempt at explanation or justification; which indicates that McGeough believes this view is universally agreed upon by his audience. McGeough uses certain language that indicates Trump’s ‘ownership’ of negative behaviours, such as ‘much of his demeaning of women’ and ‘Trump’s presumption that men are entitled to treat women purely as sex objects’; again reinforcing this notion that this is ‘typical’ and ‘usual’ of Trump. The use of words such as ‘caught’, ‘unearthing’, ‘claiming’, and ‘attempted’ implicitly suggest that Trump is inherently guilty of the accusations cast against him.
McGeough appeals to ethics and morality when he cites two very evaluative statements:
‘“as a father of three daughters, I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologise directly to women and girls everywhere, and take full responsibility for the utter lack of respect for women shown in his comments on that tape,” he said.’
‘Jeb Bush tweeted his outrage: “As the grandfather of two precious girls, I find that no apology can excuse away Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments degrading women”.’
These statements suggest that Trump presents a threat to ‘women and girls’ everywhere, and are intended to instil a sense of fear and disgust in readers; especially men who also have granddaughters, daughters, mothers and wives. The two quotes are divided by this photograph, strategically placed in the middle:
This is Caroline Giuliani — a beautiful young woman of the next generation (and of course, a Clinton supporter); her youth emphasised by her long blonde hair and rosy cheeks. She stands tall, and looks up with a knowing, determined expression. She appears to be a woman with a big future ahead of her; someone who does not want to be disrespected by someone like Trump. Giuliani is not mentioned anywhere in the article other than the caption, so it’s probable that this photo was simply used for emotive impact; juxtaposed against the two quotes that present Trump as a threat to ‘women and girls everywhere’. Of course, such a comparison is intended to further propagate this representation of Trump as a threatening, sexist man.
While this portrayal is often essentially an evaluative representation of Trump, it is interesting to note that the same representation carries across to news media and ‘objective’ journalism. An example is news journalism piece ‘Donald Trump to Miss Teen USA contestants: ‘Don’t worry ladies, I’ve seen it all before’, published on news.com.au on the 13th October 2016. Written by News Corp ‘staff writers’, this piece follows the conventional news journalism format, with two introductory paragraphs outlining the ‘what’, ’where’, ‘when’ and ‘who’. Underlying this seemingly objective news report, however, is a thinly disguised attitudinal stance.
The central claim of this piece is fairly obvious: that Trump is a misogynist who sexually harasses women. The authors primarily use appeals to emotion in order to reinforce this representation, based on the assumption that the audience share the universal worldview that sexual assault is awful and unacceptable. This claim is never explicitly articulated, but implied; all of the attitudinally-charged content is assigned to external sources, in order to maintain an ‘objective’ appearance.
The quotes from Trump’s alleged sexual assault victims contain rather strong, physical imagery:
‘“We walked into that room alone, and Trump shut the door behind us. I turned around, and within seconds, he was pushing me against the wall, and forcing his tongue down my throat,” Natasha Stoynoff wrote of the encounter’
‘“His hands were everywhere”, she said of an incident on a plane in the 1980s’
‘“Trump is much bigger— a looming figure— and he was very fast, taking me by surprise, and throwing me off balance. I was stunned. And I was grateful when Trump’s longtime butler burst into the room a minute later, as I tried to unpin myself.”’
‘It came as a fourth woman, a recent Miss Washington, revealed Mr. Trump had “continually grabbed my ass and invited me to his hotel room”.’
These evocative, ‘shocking’ and ‘creepy’ statements are an appeal to emotion; designed to disturb readers and instil a sense of fear regarding Trump. These accounts are listed one after the other, not unlike the way McGeough listed the Republican condemnations in the earlier article; with the intention of seeming ‘endless’, or even overwhelming. The ‘victims’ cited include Jessica Leeds, Rachael Crooks, Natasha Stoynoff, Cassandra Searles, Mariah Billado, Bridget Sullivan and Tasha Dixon. Dixon’s statements were left until the very end of the piece, in order to leave her story lingering in the minds of readers. When the authors relay these accounts, they use language that implicitly suggests they are what actually happened:
‘she said of an incident on a plane in the 1980s, where Mr. Trump raised the barrier between their first class seats and groped her’
‘working as a receptionist at Trump Tower in 2005 when the businessman kissed her repeatedly on the mouth, leaving her feeling violated’
‘A reporter for People magazine detailed an unwanted encounter when she was reporting on Trump for the magazine in 2005’
‘It came as a fourth woman, a recent Miss Washington, revealed Mr. Trump had’
These terms imply a certain legitimacy to these observations and assertions.
In contrast, words that usually cast doubt such as ‘claimed’ or ‘alleged’ are reserved only for Trump. His statements are often cited as scare quotes:
‘And his initial response to its publication in The Washington Post – just “locker-room banter” – is a poor attempt to normalise what for many veers towards criminal conduct.’
‘Mr. Trump released a statement describing the New York Times article as “fiction”’
‘Trump claimed his vile comments about women have been made for “entertainment”.’
This is a technique the authors have used in order to distance themselves from his words, as if they don’t quite believe him; aiming to cast a sense of doubt and undermine his case.
Powerful labels such as ‘mogul’, ’billionaire’ and ‘the Republican presidential candidate’ are juxtaposed against labels such as ‘10 year old girl’ and ‘teenagers’ in order to emphasise this representation of Trump as a domineering man who is a threat to young girls. Source identifiers are used to attach positive or negative connotations to external sources, such as the recognition of Jessica Leeds as ‘retired businesswoman’. This portrays her as a strong, independent woman who wouldn’t feel the need to make things up for money or attention, thus adding credibility to her statement.
A classic convention of objective news reporting is to include information from all perspectives. In this article, however, the long, seemingly endless, statements from his alleged victims are followed by the short, sharp paragraph:
‘Eleven of the contestants told BuzzFeed they did not recall seeing Trump in their dressing room. The Trump campaign did not respond to the site’.
‘The Trump campaign and the Trump Organisation did not respond to requests for comment. The Miss Universe Organisation, which runs Miss Teen USA, declined to comment.’
These short statements carry connotations of being brushed off, as if Trump is either guilty or could not care less. Note the use of ‘The Trump campaign’, ‘the Trump Organisation’ and the ‘Miss Universe Organisation’ instead of Trump himself. This reiterates the image of Trump as a huge, powerful businessman, who perhaps hides behind his institutions – again an implication of guilt. The ‘requests for comment’ assists in retaining the article’s sense of objectivity, but if the authors had really wanted to quote from Trump’s perspective, they could have chosen from the many sources available of Trump openly defending himself, even labelling these allegations as ridiculous. It’s not as if they didn’t want to cite from other media outlets; almost all of the assault victims’ statements quoted are from external sources, such as CBS 2 Los Angeles, BuzzFeed and even Facebook. The Trump campaign’s apparent ‘refusal to comment’ projects to readers that he is guilty and has no valid defence to these claims.
While this is a fundamentally ‘objective’ piece of news journalism, it continues to propagate the representation of Trump as a misogynist and sexual abuser.
Finally, let’s take a look at one of the many political cartoons that frame Trump in this manner.
The participants in the image are two singular icons: an instantly recognisable Trump as the main focus, closely followed by the Statue of Liberty. Cartoonist Steve Benson has drawn Trump in his trademark blue suit, with his round frame, oversized chin, orange face and mop of yellow blond hair. There is even the red word ‘Trump’ stamped across his back for clarification. The Statue of Liberty here can be interpreted as not only a woman, but by extension a symbol of the women of America, in addition to her traditional representation of American values such as Freedom and Liberty. The title mocks Trump’s campaign slogan, ‘Make America great again’.
Trump is the ‘active’ ‘doer’ in this cartoon. He has his back to us (perhaps implying he has no care for what others think), and is leaning or leering oppressively toward her, very much in her territory (on her pedestal, in fact), grabbing her around the buttocks or lower waist, pulling her toward him. The Statue of Liberty is also active; trying to fight him off and hold him back with a very anxious and angry expression on her face. She is on the receiving end, presented as the victim in this image. Her expression, the only one we see, is a very serious one: grimacing, with a downturned mouth.
As an audience we are quite distanced from what is going on in the cartoon. It is positioned as a long-shot; there is no eye contact, Trump has his back toward us, and the Statue of Liberty is only looking at him. This could indicate that like all of his alleged assault encounters, this has occurred behind the scenes, with nobody else involved. As an audience we are not invited to take part. At the same time, however, this is very public. They are, after all, standing on the iconic pulpit of America’s most famous statue. This could indicate that the whole world is watching as America’s women, and the country, are assaulted and manipulated by Trump; or it could perhaps be a reference to his sexual assault allegations coming into the public spotlight. This is a very simple cartoon, but its symbolism sends a strong message. While it is somewhat comical (What, Trump is even assaulting statues now?!), it ultimately represents how Trump is openly harassing every woman in America, and in turn he and his campaign is a threat to women’s rights, women’s liberty, and ultimately America’s liberty.
It is evident from the general media patterns and in-depth analysis of these three texts that the media landscape as a whole portrays Trump as a misogynist in late 2016. All of the worldwide media coverage, ranging from views journalism to news journalism, seems to position audiences to take the same view of Trump. He is often characterised with traits such as ‘leering’ and ‘bragging’ and appearing generally ‘creepy’. While some pieces, like the news.com.au piece, may be more implicit in their positioning of audiences, others such as the cartoon above are more explicit in their persuasive techniques. As site ViralMozo so aptly stated, “he’s become one of the most hated men not just in America, but all over the world.”
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