To assert that Donald Trump has not played the media like the proverbial fiddle would be a lie of the tallest order. This does not so much tell us about the good strategic acts of Donald Trump as much as it tells us about the inherent weaknesses in the media which Trump deftly exploited. He has proven that he can disrupt the news cycle pretty much at will.
According to many outlets, Trump has expended about $10 million in direct advertisements. And why should he expend any more than that when media outlets have granted him $2 billion worth of free advertisement simply by calling in to a television show. NBC’s Meet the Press ceased doing telephone interviews as a matter of policy. That means that interview format shows on stations other than NBC stand to gain from a Donald Trump telephone interview.
Further, Trump has been the subject of over 62% of the coverage of the GOP primary and nomination process. With such a large initial field, that meant that 16 other candidates were fighting over the remaining 38% of the coverage with some well-qualified candidates being fed the scraps. Newspaper coverage was no different than television coverage with one study showing Trump received about 55% of the coverage in that media. Thrown altogether, it becomes quite painfully obvious that the media defined the GOP nomination process as a Trump phenomena.
Admittedly, some of the Trump coverage has intrinsic news worthiness. But, to assert that 68% of all the coverage was newsworthy is silly. For example, early on most of the Trump coverage centered on his performance in the polls. This was even before any primary vote was counted and accounted for the bulk of the coverage soon after his announcement that he was entering the race. Polls showing his steady rise only fed the Trump frenzy. Even when Trump was making inflammatory comments, the media was concentrating on polls showing his increase despite the comments. They began to place him on a Teflon-coated pedestal.
This was followed by a lull in coverage mainly fueled by his subdued performance in some debates and a slowdown in his momentum in the polls. But, that all changed after San Bernardino and Brussels and his somewhat anti-Muslim rhetoric. In fact since then and until Ted Cruz withdrew from the race, Trump has not gone two days without being the major or lead story regarding the GOP nomination process.
The most frequent Trump commentary concerned polling data, followed by his stance against the Republican Party and their nominating rules. One study found that Trump’s more inflammatory statements were the lead story of the day in only 16 instances. In short, it was not necessarily the inflammatory comments fueling the media frenzy; it was the media’s infatuation with Donald Trump despite what he said.
Because of this, for the other candidates in the field anything positive or negative was amplified and here Trump was certainly shrewd. For example, in one debate Marco Rubio bloodied Donald Trump over a variety of issues and positions Trump had staked out. For less than 12 hours, Rubio’s performance was the talk of the media’s coverage of the campaign. What did Trump do? He rolled out the Christie endorsement. Conversely, when Rubio had two-minutes of bad debate performance, it became amplified in the minds of people because the media harped on those two minutes while Trump remained largely silent. He did not have to do anything; the media was doing the job for him.
Further, Trump has directed media attention towards himself by threatening to avoid certain media outlets. Claiming that they are being unfair to him, that in and of itself became the story of the day regardless of whether they truly were unfair. The mere threat from Trump- a media darling- not only created the story, but caused outlets to become more fair to him in order to garner that all-important interview to boost their ratings.
Whether a statement, an action at a rally, a salacious or controversial comment or even a Tweet from his account or a conveniently-placed “leak,” Trump has proven that he is the most successful troller of the media to date. It is an obvious part of his campaign strategy and for that the media should be ashamed.
Objectively, he has said things that are objectively objectionable. There have been borderline, if not outright, sexist, misogynistic, racist comments, or outright lies, flip flops on issues, clarifications upon clarifications, etc. Yet, some news outlets and talking heads bend over backwards to explain them away and in doing so become less objective in their reporting on Trump. No one should give him benefit of the doubt over comments he made about Megyn Kelly, or Carly Fiorina’s face or an other outrageous comment he’s made.
Simply, Trump has taken advantage of a system with respect to the media that was deeply flawed from the beginning. In this way, it is no different from how he took advantage of the deeply flawed weaknesses within the Republican Party. The Republican electorate has grown wary and weary of an increasingly inept Party to the point where they allowed the hostile take over by a charlatan disguised as a conservative. Likewise, he took advantage of a media which the electorate views with disdain after sucking at the teat of Barack Obama’s administration for the past eight years.
In a strange way, we should thank Trump for exposing these weaknesses and flaws in these institutions. Perhaps in the future after he moves back to his penthouse in Trump Towers and the Clintons settle in for at least another four years in the White House, Republican voters will vote with their brains and not their guts. And maybe people will be able to intelligently make up their own minds rather than having pablum force fed to them by others within the media be it the mainstream media or so-called conservative talking heads like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and most of the dolts at Fox News.
To them, Donald Trump is “the real thing” because they made him the real thing. Maybe their egos are assuaged, but the country is worse off for it. One hopes they take partial responsibility for the nightmare of the next four years, but given their performance in 2015-2016, one doubts it.