Since launching his presidential campaign last year, there have been numerous occasions where Donald Trump’s campaign should have collapsed.
But in this surreal year, Trump’s many “gaffes” — from arguing that Sen. John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured in Vietnam (the silver-spooned billionaire received multiple draft deferments himself) and labeling Mexican immigrants “rapists and criminals,” to advocating a traveling ban on all Muslims and entertaining the idea of creating a database to track the religious minorities — have effectively helped the celebrity politician. Indeed, Trump’s many ill-advised remarks have attracted such obsessive media coverage that he has essentially received billions in free publicity.
According to a New York Times analysis from March, which examined data from mediaQuant, Trump had earned about $2 billion worth of media attention, or “earned media,” described as “news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media,” over the previous year (this was two months ago, which means that number has presumably grown substantially). In a distant second was Hillary Clinton, who had received about $746 million in earned media up to that point.
As one media report later noted, Trump received $58 in free press for every one dollar his campaign spent, compared to a measly $2.50 for the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, which has broken fundraising records previously held by President Obama.
Of course, this constant Trump coverage — which has become so absurd that the three cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News) broadcasted the billionaire’s empty podium for an hour one night, while completely ignoring a Bernie Sanders’ victory speech — has not been all positive. Trump is a lot like a natural disaster or a downed airplane lost at sea; while most people think he is a repulsive individual and feel sad, astonished, and indignant that he has been so politically successful, they cannot seem to change the channel when his ugly mug appears on the television. It’s a kind of morbid curiosity. Trump is unpredictable like a shock-jock, and as a result viewers can’t help but tune in to see what Donald will say or do next (the appeal of Trump is a lot like the appeal of reality-TV, where self-serving egoists compete for attention by committing outrageous acts).
While the billionaire has received a ton of free press, much of it has been deservedly critical of his divisive rhetoric, his transparent ignorance, and his impudent bullying and name-calling. And yet, just as he has proven to be gaffe-proof, he has also proven to be quite impervious to critiques from the commentariat. If anything, a disapproving press has earned Trump more support from an irate segment of the population that believes the mainstream media is promoting an insidious political agenda. Trump is making elite pundits like George Will and David Brooks squirm, and many Americans — even Trump opponents — are enjoying the spectacle.
The New York Times’ recent article on Trump’s misogynistic tendencies, “How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private,” encapsulates the media’s inability to harm the billionaire’s campaign, as it could other’s. The story, which features interviews with former girlfriends of Trump, has created a backlash, and now, rather than focusing on Trump’s self-evident disrespect for women, the story has become how the duplicitous Times smeared poor Donald, man of the people and maverick against the snobby establishment.
“The Times overreaches every time on Donald Trump,” opined Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “And they’ve done it again. They’ve overreached, and they’ve taken a negative for him and turned it into a positive that he can spin against the media.”
It is a strange situation indeed. While Trump and his supporters bicker incessantly about the biased media and its toxic political correctness, the same networks and publications provide Trump with billions in free publicity, contributing to his political rise for the sake of ratings. Meanwhile, Sanders has been often ignored throughout the campaign season, while Hillary Clinton — who has always had something of a hostile relationship with the D.C. press — has been plagued by her email scandal. If the the corporate media is trying to advance a liberal or left-wing agenda, it is doing a pretty lousy job.
Of course, when right-wingers go on tirades against the media, it never seems to cross their minds that the fourth estate is predominately made up of a handful of multinational corporations operating in a free market, for a profit. At an investors presentation in December, CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves cheered on Trump’s political success because of his huge ratings. So much for that political agenda.
What someone like Ted Cruz perceives as a liberal bias is usually just a reality bias. When journalists report on climate change as a scientific fact, for example, it doesn’t mean they are biased left-wingers pushing some kind of liberal conspiracy, but that they’re operating within the confines of reality. To contend that these organizations have a left-wing political agenda is to completely ignore their business model — the primary reason for their existence (likewise, conservative culture warriors regularly turn a blind eye to the fact that consumer-capitalism has engendered what they view as a decadent and immoral culture; sorry Mike Huckabee, but Beyonce is just satisfying demand).
Nevertheless, blaming the press is a valuable ploy for right-wingers, and Trump will continue complaining about the “unfair” media while benefitting from its 24/7 coverage. Over the past year, the dividing line between entertainment and hard news has blurred considerably thanks to Donald, which does not bode well for democracy, in which an informed electorate is critical. Trump and the corporate media have used each other over the past year — the billionaire has gotten plenty of attention, while networks have achieved big boosts in ratings. And in the end, the people will suffer from this noxious union.