The media is aiding and abetting Donald Trump’s rise just as it did for Hitler

The media has a duty to plainly report the truth to readers and viewers, and not obfuscate, downplay, or over-correct rightward in an effort to appear “balanced.”


Nazi leader Adolf Hitler rose to power not just by capitalizing on the rage of a nation devastated by the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles, but with the help of a media class eager to profit by humanizing and normalizing a fascist mass murderer. 

While the history of the next four years has not yet been written, former President Donald Trump is likewise exploiting a complicit media hungry for ratings and clicks to sail into a second term. Like Hitler, Trump has a unique command of propaganda, a captivating public presence, and knows how to drive home narratives beneficial to him and harmful to his enemies.

The current political moment is similar in many ways to the conditions that led to Hitler’s regime and lessons can be learned from the years preceding World War II. But if the beltway media’s current pattern of editorial choices surrounding Trump remains unchanged, the former president may very well win another term and wreak untold havoc on democracy, the rule of law, marginalized populations, and on the institution of journalism itself.

How softball media coverage elevated Hitler

In the 1930s, western media outlets leaned into the relatively new genre of celebrity journalism by seeking to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at society’s biggest power players. Adolf Hitler was the subject of numerous banal profiles by major publications. University of Buffalo (UB) architecture professor Despina Stratigakos, who authored the 2015 book Hitler at Home, explored how much of the soft coverage that humanized the German leader was published well after his record as a violent fascist was established.

“[Hitler’s advisors] were able to engineer a complete transformation of Hitler’s public persona,” Stratigakos said in a 2015 UB press release promoting her book. “They accomplished this by focusing on his private life — by showing him playing with his dogs and with children, and at home in architectural spaces designed to evoke a feeling of warmth. By the end of the 1930s, news stories around the world described him as a caring, gentle individual with great taste in home décor.”

“After reading these stories, people would feel like they knew the ‘true’ Hitler, the private man behind the Führer mask, and that maybe this person was not as bad as all of the news coming out of Europe seemed to suggest,” she continued. “All kinds of publications — from serious political journals to LIFE and even American Kennel Gazette, a dog magazine — were covering this story about the ‘real’ Hitler. In 1934, the German Press Association reported that images of Hitler at home playing with his dogs or with children were the most popular images purchased by the media in Germany and abroad.”

Straigakos emphasized that the danger of such coverage was that it made him a public figure with whom readers could sympathize. She added that she was “shocked” at how the glowing coverage of Hitler continued in the face of his regime’s well-documented atrocities. 

The UB press release pointed to an August 1939 New York Times magazine article about how Hitler’s Obersalzberg estate was “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions” as one example. That article was published nine months after the Kristallnacht pogrom, and a full six years after the Dachau concentration camp was established for the incarceration of political dissidents. 

The Times in particular had a pattern of soft coverage when it came to Hitler. After his 1924 release from prison for the Beer Hall Putsch, the Times wrote an article with the headline “HITLER TAMED BY PRISON,” noting that he looked “a much sadder and wiser man… no longer to be feared.”

“It is believed he will retire to private life and return to Austria, the country of his birth,” the Times wrote.

The media misses the profits from Trump’s reality TV presidency

Like Hitler, Trump is a darling of the beltway media establishment in spite of his toxic invective and monstrous policies. This is likely due to the tremendous amounts of money he’s made for media outlets in the form of increased ratings and subscriptions. In early 2016, Les Moonves — who at the time was CEO and executive chairman of CBS — offered a frank assessment of Trump’s benefit to the media’s bottom line.

“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves said of Trump and the MAGA movement at a conference. “Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us,” he added. “Sorry, it’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

The media’s symbiotic relationship with Trump during his first term is well-documented. In the time between Trump announcing his presidential campaign in 2015 with a speech that attacked the vast bulk of immigrants as “drug dealers” and “rapists” up to election day in 2016, he got more than $5 billion worth of free media coverage. And once Trump’s presidency began, major US media outlets experienced significant financial windfalls. 

In early 2018, the New York Times boasted that it had grown its digital subscription revenue to more than $1 billion, making up 60% of its total revenue. The Washington Post likewise announced that it surpassed one million digital subscribers by September of 2017. The Wall Street Journal soared past 1.27 million digital subscriptions by June of that year. CNN attributed that growth to “overwhelming interest in the Trump presidency.” TV news ratings experienced a similar jump, with Pew Research finding that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all experienced significant jumps in their own ratings when Trump was in office. Those ratings noticeably took a nosedive once President Joe Biden took the oath of office in 2021.

The Biden presidency is far more boring compared to the riveting, chaotic, and unpredictable Trump presidency, and that means less ratings and clicks. As many political observers noted during his administration, Donald Trump’s was the first-ever reality TV presidency. In early 2017, NPR published an interview with reality TV producer Tom Forman entitled “With Conflict and Drama, Trump Hooks You Like A Reality TV Show.” Forman called Trump’s campaign “the best reality TV show,” and said Trump “understands how to make us feel a certain way.”

“He’s the anti-wonk. It’s not operating at 30,000 feet,” he said. “I think Obama, smart though he was, an unbelievably talented speaker, was operating at that 30,000-foot level. He wanted to talk about policy… And that’s unbelievably important, but it’s dry.”

At the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian Michelle Wolf roasted Trump, Congress, Republicans, and Democrats alike. But she saved some of her harshest criticism at the end of her speech for the beltway press.

“I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you,” she said. “He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.”

The media is applying a dangerous double standard for Trump

The financial aspect may be unconsciously factoring into those same publications and networks’ editorial decisions regarding how they report on Biden and Trump — who are 81 and 77 years old, respectively — as they ramp up election coverage. When Department of Justice special counsel Robert Hur (a Trump appointee) released his report exonerating Biden of any criminal wrongdoing in his classified documents probe, he did so while taking gratuitous shots at the president’s age and mental faculties. Republicans have since seized on those attacks as reason to suggest that Biden is unfit for office. 

Major US media outlets have joined in, blanketing both airwaves and column space with a relentless drumbeat of stories suggesting that Biden — who spent nearly 40 years in the US Senate and eight years as vice president — doesn’t have the mental fortitude to be president. 

Journalist Judd Legum found that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal published 81 stories about Hur’s attacks on Biden’s memory in the four days following the report’s release. The Times’ opinion page the Sunday after the Hur report was published was a relentless barrage of Biden hit pieces from the Times’ staff columnists in addition to the paper’s editorial board itself. CNN’s chyron on the Chris Wallace Show even read at one point, “Is Biden’s age now a bigger problem than Trump’s indictments?” The X/Twitter account New York Times Pitchbot — which satirizes the Times’ inflammatory headlines — tweeted a still of that chyron, writing “I can’t compete with this.”

This is merely part of a pattern: Over a four-day period in 2023, Media Matters for America (MMFA) found that the three largest cable networks (CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC) mentioned Biden’s age and health roughly four times more than they did for Trump despite their similarity in age. Likewise, after Biden formally announced his reelection bid, MMFA found that over a six-month period, top newspapers mentioned Biden’s age in more than twice as many articles than they mentioned Trump’s.

While it’s a fact to say Biden is the oldest person to ever hold the office of president, his mental fitness hasn’t been doubted by people who have had direct dealings with him, regardless of their partisan leanings. While he was negotiating raising the debt ceiling with then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-California) in 2023, the senior House Republican told Punchbowl News’ Max Cohen that the 80-year-old was “very professional, very smart,” and “very tough at the same time.” And during his State of the Union address last year, Biden effectively tricked Republicans into agreeing to not touch Medicare and Social Security in debt negotiations.

At the same time, Trump’s noticeable mental decline has gone relatively under the radar. During a recent speech to National Rifle Association activists in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Trump suggested without evidence that Democrats would rename the state if Biden won a second term. He’s also confused former UN ambassador Nikki Haley with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), mistook Chinese President Xi Jinping for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and has repeatedly referred to President Biden as “President Obama” on the campaign trail. He’s also called Hungarian president Viktor Orban “the leader of Turkey” and addressed Sioux City, Iowa as “Sioux Falls,” which is in South Dakota.

Ultimately, at this stage of the primary process, it seems inevitable that barring a major eleventh hour health scare, only one of two men will be president of the United States on January 20, 2025: Joe Biden or Donald Trump. Both are elderly and gaffe-prone. But one of those two men has made it very clear that he would relish in creating an authoritarian, lawless, corrupt government designed to protect and serve only him, while the other would not. The media has a duty to plainly report the truth to readers and viewers, and not obfuscate, downplay, or over-correct rightward in an effort to appear “balanced.”


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