With Donald Trump closing in on the Republican nomination in Indiana today, there is a new wave of finger-pointing to assess blame for this allegedly horrible outcome.
And those who fault the media are having one last hurrah.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the cover of Politico Magazine, which features Trump facing a media mob with the headline: “What Have We Done?”
It’s a study in self-flagellation, this argument that Trump would not be where he is today without being propped up by the press. Many of his detractors refuse to acknowledge that a non-politician is winning this thing by getting a record number of GOP primary votes, so the thing must be rigged by reporters.
Politico’s special media issue is so packed with anti-Trump essays that there is little attempt at balance. One exception is media writer Jack Shafter, who says the blame game “gives too much credit to the media and too little credit to Donald Trump.”
But then there’s reporter Ben Schreckinger, who became the fulltime Trump correspondent despite the fact that working for Politico is his first job out of college. Perhaps that’s why he is so angry at criticism from Trump and his deputies and a lack of access, both of which are standard fare in the political big leagues.
Former New York Post gossip writer Susan Mulcahy argues that Trump used to lie to her and once gave a scoop to the New York Times rather than confirm it to her.
A piece on Trump’s Twitter feed is titled “The Cry-Bully.”
But the most important article is by Campbell Brown, the former CNN and NBC anchor, who I like and respect: “Why I Blame TV for Trump.”
Now you have to factor in that Brown cannot abide Trump. She calls him a chronic liar, a misogynist, shockingly ignorant, and a man who condones violence. So this is the writing of an outspoken critic.
Brown says TV news is rolling over for The Donald: “Trump doesn’t force the networks to show his rallies live rather than do real reporting. Nor does he force anyone to accept his phone calls rather than demand that he do a face-to-face interview that would be a greater risk for him. TV news has largely given Trump editorial control. It is driven by a hunger for ratings—and the people who run the networks and the news channels are only too happy to make that Faustian bargain.”
This, aside from the business about “real reporting,” is a fair point. Trump’s rallies got so much more live coverage than any of his competitors that it gave him an unfair advantage.
Brown misses the old “800-pound gorillas of TV news” like Tom Brokaw, who could push back against commercial decisions. But of course, the broadcast networks don’t cover politics in a major way and have ceded that turf to cable.
“So yes, I believe Trump’s candidacy is largely a creation of a TV media that wants him, or needs him, to be the central character in this year’s political drama,” she writes. “And it’s not just the network and cable executives driving it. The TV anchors and senior executives who don’t deliver are mercilessly ousted. The ones who do deliver are lavishly rewarded. I know from personal experience that it is common practice for TV anchors to have substantial bonuses written into their contracts if they hit ratings marks. With this 2016 presidential soap opera, they are almost surely hitting those marks. So, we get all Trump, all the time.”
Here’s what Brown, who candidly admitted she left CNN because she couldn’t match the ratings of Fox and MSNBC, is missing:
Trump has seized much of the “free” air time by doing many, many more interviews than his rivals, and by driving the campaign dialogue—which all candidates try to do but are usually too cautious or dull to pull off.
Many reporters have dug hard into Trump’s businesses, his rhetoric, his promises, his contradictions—but these stories and segments have done little to dent his lead. He is seemingly impervious to most media criticism, in part because his supporters don’t trust the press, but it’s not for lack of trying.
A huge portion of the media attention lavished on Trump is harshly negative, often from conservative and liberal commentators who oppose him on ideological grounds. Trump punches back hard, especially on Twitter, though he’s toned it down of late. The billionaire actually benefits from denunciations by those his supporters view as members of a failed media/political establishment.
And don’t forget how the Huffington Post and New York’s Daily News have demonized Trump from the beginning, or all the mainstream media pundits who spent months insisting he was a sideshow, that he would fade, that this or that controversial remark would produce his imminent demise.
There is much to criticize in the media’s coverage of Donald Trump. But to say the media were the engine that powered his candidacy is to miss the way he overpowered his rivals and forged a connection with millions of Republican voters.