Yes, the Media Is Partly to Blame for the Rise of Donald Trump

March 17, 2016, 7:57 PM UTC
Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Don’t blame me for the prominence of Donald Trump, says Jeff Zucker. At least, that was the gist of what the CNN boss told Matthew Garrahan of the Financial Times during a Q&A session with journalists on Wednesday. In a nutshell, the network is covering the front-runner in a hotly contested presidential race, he said.

In other words, CNN is just doing its job. But is it really that simple?

For an alternative viewpoint, all we have to do is turn to some recent remarks made by another network executive. In this case, Les Moonves of CBS. During a discussion at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom conference in San Francisco, the CBS chairman said that Trump and the Republican race “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He went on to say:

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.

Is CNN doing its job by covering the front-runner in a presidential race? Of course it is. And so is CBS, Fox News, and every other TV network and news website. Ignoring Trump at this point wouldn’t make any sense.

But it’s also difficult to believe—given the obvious excitement that Les Moonves feels about the beneficial financial impact of the network’s Trump coverage—that Jeff Zucker hasn’t thought about this aspect of its strategy at all.

The benefits to CNN are pretty obvious—namely, higher ratings, which translate into higher ad revenue. It’s not like the network only boosted its coverage of Trump as it has become more and more obvious that he would become the leading candidate. According to a number of media analysts, the Republican candidate received orders of magnitude more coverage from the very beginning of his campaign—before it was even clear how dominant his support was.

From June 16 (the day he announced his campaign) through September 14, media-tracking firm Zignal Labs said Trump was the subject of at least 2,159 CNN reports, almost twice as many as Florida governor Jeb Bush. Furthermore, the Media Research Center found that during a two-week period in August, close to 80% of CNN’s Republican campaign coverage was spent discussing Donald Trump: 580 minutes out of a total of 747 minutes.

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Zucker has some past experience with Trump’s ability to drive ratings, since his reality competition show The Apprentice was a big hit for NBC when Zucker was running the network. At one point, Zucker reportedly tried to get the real-estate magnate to allow the network to broadcast his wedding. So the ties between Trump and ratings are not a mystery to Zucker or anyone else at CNN. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter put it:

Trump is the media’s addiction. When he speaks, he’s given something no other candidate gets. That’s wall-to-wall coverage… He sucks up all the oxygen.

A side effect of all of this coverage is more awareness of Trump and his campaign, the kind of free marketing that other campaigns would no doubt have paid handsomely for if they could. According to a recent analysis by the New York Times, Trump has accumulated a windfall of “earned media” coverage worth close to $2 billion since he launched his campaign.

Is this all CNN’s or Fox News’ fault? Of course not. Whether you like his message or not, Trump is a masterful user of Twitter and other social networks to spread his views. Additionally, as Zucker pointed out in his conversation with Smith, Trump also makes himself available more than many other candidates do. (Yet Trump also likes to play cat-and-mouse with Fox and others over whether he will attend debates, which earns him even more free publicity.)

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In a recent column for Politico, media writer Jack Shafer argued against the idea that the media are somehow to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. For one thing, Shafer says, this gives too much credit to media companies for their ability to shape the perceptions of the electorate. In addition to that, he says, Trump was clearly already a media force before he even started his run for president.

News outlets covered him for a variety of reasons, his availability being one of them, and his penchant for the outrageous and nonconventional another. If you want to blame anybody, blame the public. Had the public not responded to the Trump phenomenon, he would have quickly been relegated to the undercard debates and dispatched to the potter’s field of failed presidential candidates.

If the question is whether the media created Trump, then obviously Shafer is right, the answer would be no. There is clearly widespread support for his views and his attitude, and that wasn’t created by the media. But that’s not to say wall-to-wall coverage of Trump, his rallies, and his pronouncements—not to mention a lack of confrontation when it comes to his obvious falsehoods or racist proposals— hasn’t fed the growth of that base, and for that the media is very definitely on the hook.

So is Jeff Zucker right? Is CNN just doing its job covering a presidential race? Sure. But he’s wrong if he thinks the tone, volume, or nature of that coverage isn’t having an impact on the profile Trump has and the way he is seen by TV audiences. That’s something CNN should be thinking about while it gleefully cashes the checks all that Trump coverage brings.

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