In the fallout of Trump’s win on Tuesday, many sources have tried to lay blame or take credit for his meteoric rise. Many have blamed the culture of liberal elitism in Washington, others blame Obama himself, some cite the GOP, and others the white male ‘silent majority’. Most commonly, though, there is a general agreement that media bears some of the blame.
To hear Trump supporters tell it, Trump triumphed against the biased lamestream media who sought to vilify him and push their liberal agenda. To hear the opposing camp, they will often cite the alleged $1.9 billion in free air time, how the media legitimized Trump by taking him seriously. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that both of the arguments have validity and speak to larger, scarier truth about the way media operates in America.
So, let’s begin with the $1.9 billion in air time. Regarding coverage spent on him, across all major networks, Trump beat Hillary two to one. Think about what that represents. Donald Trump was twice as likely to be on your television screen than Hillary Clinton throughout the entire campaign. You were six times more likely to see him than Ted Cruz, nine times more than Jeb Bush, forty times more than John Kasich. This all translates to much wider exposure and influence than any of his opponents could have predicted.
Sure, he was on TV for saying and doing things no other candidate would, but the fact of the matter was, he was on the screen and they were not. According to Harvard University’s Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy, “Of all the indicators of success in the invisible primary, media exposure is arguably the most important. Media exposure is essential if a candidate is to rise in the polls.” This exposure radically increased his chances of saying something that will strike a cord with a potential voter- with the rest getting lost in the noise.
Remember the weary punditry, complaining that every day seemed to bring a new Trump scandal, then showing the clip and talking about it anyway? Jon Oliver called it the bed of nails effect, saying that because Trump's statements were as frequent as they were incendiary, they lost their shocking effect. The irony is that he did this in a 20-minute piece on Trump – even more free air time. The man had the market saturated.
The other major complaint against the media is that they were either too hard on, or not hard enough on Trump. The right seems to think that Trump beat a horrendously biased media (he didn’t, fact-checking isn’t bias - it’s their responsibility) and the left seems to believe that the media legitimized him by including him in the conversation (they didn’t, we did). Neither of these arguments hold up under scrutiny.
Sure, there were plenty of anti-Trump sources in the media, but they all declared that bias well in advance of their comments. You need only look into the glut of late-night comedy to see this point affirmed. On the other hand, the mainstream (read: network) sources, did their level best to remain impartial and fact-check him on the flurry of stuff that he said during the campaign. It just so happens that most of what he says cannot be backed up by facts, so it is possible to get the sense that the media is picking on him. Possible, but unfounded.
However, the idea that the media is responsible for legitimizing him is equally ridiculous. The media is accountable only to report as information becomes available (and yes, I hear you legion of well-informed not-wrong people as you scream at the screen that the act of reporting necessitates bias [It’s just not the point I’m making right now]) and as the Trump campaign’s information became available it was reported. People were indeed rallying around him- he was winning primaries, and he clearly had started a movement. None of that is bad reporting.
Which brings me to my promise to combine the two arguments. They’re both true. The media did give Trump a huge edge, precisely because he is so adept at manipulating it in his favor. Take the sensational statements every day or so- the Shorenstein study explains them this way: “Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention.” Trump himself has admitted that he is a master at the craft, in an interview from 1987 he said “If you are a little different, or a little outrageous … the press is going to write about you.” This is not a buffoon getting lucky- these are the calculated actions of a media-savvy man doing what he does best. The media are attached. The attachment is fiscal, the CEO and president of CBS Leslie Moonves said of Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. The money’s rolling in, and this is fun.” There is an incentive on both ends for Donald Trump to behave the way he does. He gets the support- they make more money.
And here is the lesson in all of this– they make more money because we watch it. The left tunes into shows mocking Trump, the right tunes in to see their hero on the news, the center watches out of curiosity and shock. This is democracy folks. We are voting with our cable packages, with clicks, and links, and reposting. We voted to hear more of Donald Trump’s voice and, for better or worse, that’s what we’re going to get.