The media had it a lot easier before Donald Trump become the leading Republican candidate for president because it was easier to treat him solely as a sideshow. The Huffington Post even vowed that it would only cover Trump in the entertainment section.
But as his support grew, the media found itself impaled on the horns of a dilemma: Trump is great for ratings, but his campaign—including his treatment of the press—is increasingly disturbing.
CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves summed up the first part of this equation on Monday during an appearance at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media and Telecom conference in San Francisco. "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," the CBS executive said of the presidential race, which he also called "a circus" filled with "bomb throwing." Moonves added:
Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? The money's rolling in and this is fun. I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.
As befits the kind of commentary you might get at a financial conference, this is the quintessential statement about Trump as a ratings-driving, audience-boosting, traffic-generating circus clown. Moonves includes an off-handed acknowledgement that his policies and his approach to things like racism and press freedoms may be a concern for the country, but mostly there's just glee.
Moonves isn't the only one who feels this way, he's just the one who came out and said it most recently. You can bet that any producer at Fox News or CNN or any of the other networks feels similarly a lot of the time, not to mention executives who run websites and rely on getting as many visitors as possible to please advertisers. Need to boost traffic? Run a couple more Trump stories with a few tweets embedded in them, and you're good. He's like the golden ticket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Donald Trump retweets a Mussolini quote
This is why TV programs like Morning Joe on MSNBC with former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough have tried hard to build relationships with Trump, to the point where they have been criticized for getting too cozy with the candidate to cover him properly. Granted, Morning Joe recently veered away from its positive coverage to criticize Trump for not disavowing support from the leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
According to a recent study by television analyst Andrew Tyndall, Trump has gotten the lion's share of coverage on traditional network news programs—a combined 327 minutes on ABC, CBS, and NBC in 2015. In contrast, both Jeb Bush and Ben Carson got 57 minutes each, Marco Rubio got about 22 minutes, and Ted Cruz got around 21 minutes. And that doesn't even include the cable networks.
One of the things that makes Trump so easy to cover is that he is effectively a one-man media machine, especially through his Twitter account, where he picks fights and lobs grenades at everyone from the other candidates to Taylor Swift. As Rolling Stone writer Tim Dickinson pointed out in a tweet-storm on Tuesday, his 6.5 million followers make him about the same size as the CBS evening news (although obviously those numbers aren't directly comparable). He is his own media entity.
Meanwhile, the candidate the media covers so gleefully is keeping journalists in pens at his campaign rallies—conditions so restrictive that if a journalist steps out of line by even a foot or so, he can be strangled and slammed to the floor by a Secret Service agent, even though the candidate is nowhere to be seen. This happened to a Time Inc. photographer on Monday (Time Inc. owns Fortune).
In August, Jorge Ramos, a prominent reporter and anchor for Univision, was physically ejected from a Trump press conference for asking a question. The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said in a report on the level of freedom for journalists in the United States that "Donald Trump has brought his grudge-match with the media to an extremely dangerous level for freedom of the press."
A number of media outlets, including several TV networks, have tried to present a united front and argue that penning journalists up is not acceptable conduct in a country where press freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, but so far they have made little progress.
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And more recently, in some of his more recent comments, Trump has bragged that he plans to "open up" libel laws so that he can more easily sue newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, which he regularly describes as "dishonest scum." Even if following through on this promise is more difficult than Trump admits because of the First Amendment (as I explained in a recent post), the fact that he even talks about such policies and is cheered by his adoring fans for doing so is disturbing.
If the media was a single human being, Trump's relationship with that person would be defined as co-dependent. Although he is a media entity in his own right, the candidate relies on TV networks and newspapers and websites not just to give him coverage but to provide a nice punching bag for him to use when he is criticizing the liberal orthodoxy and how it doesn't understand him.
For the press, meanwhile, Trump is a potentially horrific combination of naked ambition, ignorance, and racism. At one point, the Huffington Post said that it planned to add a note to every story that said the candidate is a "serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully." But not only is he the leading candidate for the Republican nomination, and therefore someone the media has to cover, he is such a ratings win that most news outlets can't help but run as many stories about him as possible. Even while he keeps them in a pen and calls them scum.