There’s a case against the argument that the media has helped Donald Trump dominate the GOP presidential race up to now with relatively little scrutiny. Bob Schieffer, the former host of CBS’s Face the Nation, told Fox News last May (just before the Rise of Trump) that it’s the role of opponents to “make the campaign” and question the records of candidate. “As journalists, basically what we do is watch the campaign and report what the two sides are doing.”
But that’s not what has happened this campaign season.
Until recently, Trump averaged about 75 percent of the cable-news coverage of the GOP race. Take last Thursday’s GOP debate. Two minutes after the debate ended, CNN gave Trump a softball eight-minute post-game interview and then another ten-minute interview a mere half hour later. “Nice of CNN to throw Trump an after party like that,” tweeted David Folkenflik of NPR.
“Basically the debates are the opening acts for Trump to then go on cable TV and do interviews where he frames what happened,” Jon Ralston, a veteran Nevada journalist, tweeted. “It’s Trump’s world. We’re all just enabling it.”
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If Barack Obama benefited in 2008 from the media’s fascination with him, Trump benefits today from the media’s enthrallment with his antics. “Trump isn’t the first rich guy to run for office,” Matt Taibbi wrote last week in Rolling Stone. “But he is the first to realize the weakness in the system, which is that the watchdogs in the political media can’t resist a car wreck. . . . Trump found the flaw in the American Death Star. It doesn’t know how to turn the cameras off, even when it’s filming its own demise.”
If Barack Obama benefited in 2008 from the media’s fascination with him, Trump benefits today from the media’s enthrallment with his antics.
And because all eyes are turned on Trump, he doesn’t have to spend anything close to what his rivals do. His mix of outrage, bluster, and insults has brought him 6.5 million Twitter followers, and he is a master of social media. He has effectively drafted broadcast news to amplify his campaign. Carrying Trump’s 40-minute news conference live on February 15 was the equivalent of $2.8 million in cable-news coverage, according to the data analytics firm Optimus, which does some work with the Marco Rubio campaign.
Then there are his logistical advantages. Presidential candidates aren’t normally allowed to phone in their interviews with news shows, but Trump’s ratings power have induced anchors to make an exception for him. Betsy Fischer Martin, a former executive producer of Meet the Press, told the Huffington Post last year that call-ins are normally used for breaking news or overseas reports where a guest can’t appear on camera. With the advent of Skype, even those exceptions are becoming rarer.
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But not for Trump. With the exception of Fox News Sunday, all of the network Sunday-morning news shows seem willing to have Trump by phone — and often. The practice allows him to talk on more shows and filibuster more easily, from an environment of his choosing.
Trump revels in his power. “If you get good ratings, they’ll cover you even if you have nothing to say,” Trump boasted at a rally last week. Of course, it was covered live on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News.
#share#Former House speaker Newt Gingrich says the exceptions that Trump has been granted have been of inestimable value to him. When co-host Brian Kilmeade, of Fox & Friends, pointed out to Gingrich that Trump was “spending the least amount of money and running away with this thing,” Gingrich interjected and provided a fascinating analysis:
But that’s because of you guys. Donald Trump gets up in the morning, tweets to the entire planet at no cost, picks up the phone, calls you, has a great conversation for about eight minutes, which would have cost him a ton in commercial money, and meanwhile his opponents are all out there trying to raise the money to run an ad. Nobody believes the ad. . . . You could say that Trump is the candidate Fox & Friends invented. He was on your show, I think, more than any other show.
Co-host Steve Doocy agreed, chiming in “Every Monday.” Gingrich then responded “It was always a happy, positive conversation.” Doocy replied: “Yep.”
Of course, Trump’s opponents deserve their share of the blame for the pass he has gotten. David Kay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who has reported on Trump for 30 years, published a piece at the National Memo within days of Trump’s announcement last summer that posed 21 questions about Trump’s business record. “Reporters, competing Republican candidates, and voters would learn a lot about Trump if they asked for complete answers to these 21 questions,” he wrote. Trump’s very outrageousness convinced his opponents he would blow up, and they deployed their opposition research elsewhere against other opponents. “I really believed that voters would see through this — this con job that he’s trying to do, and, obviously, that hasn’t happened,” Marco Rubio said on Fox News Sunday today. “He’s convinced a lot of people.”
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But it’s time for everyone to understand that Donald Trump is a different kind of candidate in another way as well: He isn’t shy about what media policies he might support if he were in the White House. Last Friday, he told a rally in Fort Worth:
We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when the New York Times writes a hit piece that is a total disgrace or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected. . . . We’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.
These tactics are the kind of soft censorship that has worked very well for governments in, for instance, Singapore and Turkey. The Southeast Asia Press Association concluded that in Singapore “bankrupting opposition leaders through defamation suits has become the ruling party’s most popular — and most effective — weapon against its rivals.” Turkey’s government has used lawsuits and even criminal complaints to silence media outlets.
#related#Obviously, the U.S. has a much stronger First Amendment tradition upholding freedom of speech and inquiry, but it could be in danger from political correctness on the left and intimidation tactics from a President Trump. Several journalists have already told me they have toned down coverage of Trump simply to avoid the blowtorch of criticism from Trump’s bullying allies on social media.
Donald Trump campaign circus has brought both great entertainment and ratings riches to the networks and the Web. But now that the race enters a serious phase and Trump is the clear front-runner, it’s time for voters, journalists, and party officials to end the binge consumption of fun and games and start treating Donald Trump seriously. If the old saw is true that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance,” we have been spending too much time as political couch potatoes enjoying the spectacle.
— John Fund is NRO’s national-affairs correspondent.