- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 5, 2016


It is, was, and probably will be one of the greatest political stories of all time.

A man, who for a decade was known in people’s living rooms as the final judge on NBC’s “The Apprentice” is now up for judgment by the American people, running in the ultimate reality show contest — to become president of the United States.

The premise alone was alluring to news producers nationwide, but then when you added Donald Trump’s flair — his understanding of the media, his savvy in knowing when and how to stir up drama for the cameras, and his ability to relate to the American people and talk to them like a friend — well it became irresistible. Must watch, must air television.

After Mr. Trump announced his candidacy in June, he began showing up on stuffy Sunday morning news programs — and well — making them interesting with his unscripted and unpredictable rhetoric. Morning news shows suddenly became a bit more fun, worth waking up for.

Each program that had Mr. Trump on, saw their ratings climb. Fox News became the top overall cable channel for the first time in its history. CNN started expanding its prime-time audience. The Republican debate in August set a record with 24 million viewers, and subsequent debates — and their specials leading up to them — were ratings gold mines.

By the end of the summer, although 16 other candidates were in the race, Mr. Trump dominated in terms of news coverage. According to data from the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics, Mr. Trump averaged about three-quarters of the cable-news coverage dedicated to the presidential campaign, while the other contenders had to split up the remaining quarter.

This is where the news media failed the American people. It conflated news with entertainment, ratings with public service, and sacrificed its own editorial judgment. It smothered the other Republican candidates out of the race by disproportionately denying them airtime before any votes were cast.

A New York Times analysis estimated over the course of Mr. Trump’s campaign, he earned close to $2 billion worth of free earned media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. His nearest Republican competitor was Texas Sen. Ted Cruz with $313 million.

Now, some of Mr. Trump’s coverage was warranted — it was indeed newsworthy. But much of it was not — it was sensational garbage that didn’t necessitate a round-table debate on prime-time.

While the news media pondered what Mr. Trump meant when he said Megyn Kelly had blood coming out of her “wherever,” they were ignoring Jeb Bush’s foreign policy agenda, Mr. Cruz’s tax plan, and Rick Perry’s jobs program. For its easier and quicker for the media to cover tabloid entertainment than it is to dive into boring policy. One is thoughtless fun, the other is analytical work. One sells newspapers, the other does not.

Part of Mr. Trump’s genius is knowing exactly this.

“One thing I’ve learned about the press is that they’re always hungry for a good story, and the more sensational, the better. It’s in the nature of the job and I understand that,” Mr. Trump wrote in his 1987 book “The Art of the Deal.” “The point is that if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you.”

His comment about Mrs. Kelly came on the heels of a poor debate performance, where media attention had turned to Carly Fiorina, and her standout undercard performance. Mr. Trump extinguished any spark Mrs. Fiorina was able to draw.

The pattern repeated.

In December, when Mr. Cruz was climbing in the polls and people started talking about him as a potential rival to Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump vowed to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. One day after the Houston debate in February, where Florida Sen. Marco Rubio had a star turn, Mr. Trump unveiled his newest endorsement, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Many of these events were newsworthy and deserved coverage, but like I said before, much of Mr. Trump’s comments were not. And it was the cumulation of everything that was smothering.

Much of the news media’s power comes with their ability to silence — to not give airtime to issues or stories they feel is not in the public’s interest. This frustrates many, who see it as an inherit bias. Sometimes it is. Other times it’s used to achieve a public good.

I would argue people don’t care about the size of Mr. Trump’s hands, nor do they need analysis on Mr. Trump’s feelings about Mrs. Fiorina’s face. The public can attend a Trump rally for themselves, they don’t need to see one aired live on television in its entirety. If these were sacrificed, perhaps some of the other candidates could’ve been covered — perhaps they would’ve been able to catch lightening in a bottle.

CBS’s Chief Executive Officer Les Moonves said it best on the news media’s philosophy on Donald Trump: “It may not be good for America, but its damn good for CBS.”

Let’s hope he, and his network counterparts, feel the same way when it comes to the general.

Kelly Riddell is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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