Commentary

Debate Over Media's 'Unfair' Attention To Trump Is Hogwash

A debate over all the attention being paid by the news media to Donald Trump has simmered just below the surface of his improbable, vexing and, so far, successful campaign for president.

The conversation seems to center primarily on Trump’s omnipresence on TV newscasts and talk shows -- a position he assumed almost as soon as he announced his candidacy last June. He’s been omnipresent in every other form of news media as well -- in print, online, you name it. (Obligatory disclosure: Since last June, Trump has been the subject of 15 of these TV blogs I write every day here -- not counting this one.)

Taking it all in, some have come to the conclusion that the media has devoted far too much airtime and column inches to Trump’s campaign. These observers then blame the media and its coverage of Trump for boosting and promoting his candidacy.

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Put simply, their point of view comes down to this: The news media has paid far more attention to Trump than it has paid to any other candidate. Ergo, Trump is trouncing all of the other Republicans by margins that are more or less proportional to the amount of media attention he’s getting, and that his rivals are not getting.

Those voicing the opinion that the media’s attention to Trump has been unfair to everyone else received some fuel for their argument in last week’s story in The New York Times that put a dollar amount on the value of all the “earned media” (translation: free p.r.) Trump has garnered since he threw his hat into the ring.

The story’s point seemed to be that Trump spent far less actual money on advertising and p.r. than the other candidates precisely because he was getting so much “free” exposure just by agreeing to so many interview requests and also making outrageous statements on various subjects that were sure to be covered everywhere.

As I have written at other times over the years when a single topic or big story seems to seize the imagination of journalists for a period of time over almost everything else, this “too much attention” debate is ridiculous. 

It assumes that journalists -- the beat reporters, and their assignment editors and producers -- go around making decisions on stories based on considerations such as the percentage of time or ink devoted to this or that candidate. This argument also assumes that such decisions on that basis would even be possible, which they are not.

Moreover, such decisions would run counter to a journalist’s every instinct. Experienced journalists -- whether they’re reporting from the field or managing story lists in a newsroom -- are attracted to a day’s most important stories like moths to a lightbulb, for better or worse. 

While the aim of any news organization is to report the news as reliably and accurately as it can, news organizations also have a vital need to draw attention to themselves. TV networks need ratings, Web sites need traffic and print publications need circulation. On what planet were these news organizations supposed to forgo these aims by ignoring Donald Trump on some given day in favor of covering, say, a Jeb Bush rally so that Bush would be able to achieve some sort of airtime parity with Trump?

The “too much coverage of Trump” argument also seems to assume that just because Trump is seen frequently on TV that this fact alone is leading to all of his victories in the primaries -- that if he wasn’t on TV so much, he wouldn’t be capturing the imaginations and votes of so many people.

This argument assumes a level of persuasive power on the part of the news media that is staggering. More than likely, Trump’s popularity is due to the simplicity of his message, which is: Government bad, me good.

It is entirely appropriate to argue for or against the value or quality of this message, of course. And in fact, gobs of ink and airtime have been devoted to airing the views of many who are against Trump -- from the talk show hosts at MSNBC all the way to the editorial writers at The Wall Street Journal.

For that matter, despite what the Times’ story revealed about the media exposure Trump has enjoyed over the last 10 months or so, it is also true that just about every other candidate in the race -- Republican and Democratic -- has been seen frequently on newscasts, in prime time debates, on the weekday morning talk shows and the Sunday morning public affairs shows.

To most people, all of the candidates have been omnipresent, particularly as the ranks have thinned. While the research the Times cited (conducted by mediaQuant apparently) was certainly eye-opening, no single average person saw all of this coverage that Trump seemed to grab at the expense of all the others. In addition, no average person sits there and tallies how much air time one candidate is getting and another one is not.

For most of us, the whole thing is one big cacophony. Perhaps you might say that Trump’s voice has been the loudest one in this free-for-all, enabling him to attract the attention of voters and media alike.

That’s certainly a subject that should be discussed: That our elections now hinge on who’s loudest. Blaming the media for providing a conduit to all this noise seems like an exercise in shooting the messenger.

6 comments about "Debate Over Media's 'Unfair' Attention To Trump Is Hogwash".
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  1. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, March 21, 2016 at 1:26 p.m.

    Good analysis. I might add that some journalists probably hoped that the more coverage Trump received, the likelier and speedier his demise. I think they just waited for the implosion. But a strange thing happened along the way: Criticism made his supporters more rabid. Factchecking bounced off the Teflon hair. No one predicted it, but everyone understands it now, or should. Now he's too big to ignore. Still, the media are not to blame for lacking 20/20 hindsight. Demagogues are too infrequent. I think George Wallace was last candidate who did nearly as well (and not even close) with an unconventional message.

  2. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, March 21, 2016 at 2:38 p.m.

    "On what planet were these news organizations supposed to forgo these aims by ignoring Donald Trump on some given day in favor of covering, say, a Jeb Bush rally so that Bush would be able to achieve some sort of airtime parity with Trump?"

    The answer would be:  On THIS planet, ... way back when airtime parity between political candidates and ballot issues was not just a sensible idea, but was in fact the law.  

    It's a very simple concept that anyone can grasp. If the media did not exist, would we allow only one candidate to use a mic and sound system when speaking to a large crowd if every other candidate could only shout and hope to be heard?  

    While it's accurate to say that, even with complete parity, Trump's crazy rhetoric would still reach his target audience, at least other candidates would have the opportunity to present their own views. Eliminating parity assumes that the electorate consists entirely of those with average intelligence and wisdom, but that's not how "average" works, especially when dog-whistle candidates such as Trump are involved. 

  3. Clifton Chadwick from Comunicaciones Kokopele replied, March 21, 2016 at 8:42 p.m.

    Elimination of PAC funding and Citizens United replaced by OBLIGATORY Political Parity on the Airwaves OWNED by the TAXPAYERS!  Dammit, did I use enough CAPS?  To accept that Ratings are a reasonable use of "News" time is like calling the crap that passes for news "public service."  It's like saying that reports onpolitical strategies and tactics is legit and that reporting on how policy affect citizens might be difficult to understand.

    Andy, this writing marks you as part of the problem.

  4. Richard Potter from American Jewish University, March 21, 2016 at 2:45 p.m.

    I take a perspective similar to Chuck's, though I doubt that the legal enforcement of parity based on airtime is the best solution. But the planet on which news organizations forego drawing attention to themselves in favor of balanced coverage is the planet where democratic deliberation takes precedence over profit in the public sphere. That's the planet I want to live on.

  5. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, March 21, 2016 at 6:02 p.m.

    Please accept my apology for the HUUUGE font in my comment, which was even larger in the Feedback Loop email.  I guess it happened when I copied and pasted from the original article into my comment, which apparently dragged the larger article font commands right along with it.  I'll try to be more careful. 

    But, come to think of it, it was sort of accidently appropriate, since the article's subject involved one clown trying to be louder than his audience. 

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, March 21, 2016 at 7:54 p.m.

    So advertising doesn't work. Or advertising works. Advertorial doesn't work. Advertorial works. If none of advertising works, then what are you doing here, looking for a paycheck from somewhere ? Wasn't it a GB who emphasized that if you tell people the same thing enough times they believe it ? Greed and power make quite a bedfellow.

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