Weeks after Donald Trump launched his candidacy with a controversial speech that singled out Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug traffickers, the New York real estate developer held a press conference at the southern border.
“It was fascinating TV,” Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly told journalist Katie Couric during an interview on Wednesday night at the Women in the World summit in Manhattan.
“We put it on the Kelly File at 9 o’clock and we watched it and it was the first sort of ‘Oh my God, I can’t take my eyes off of this. What’s he going to say next? There’s something so compelling about this.’ And we saw our numbers the next day and they had soared.”
Like many networks, Kelly and her team had discovered the Trump effect – and it was intoxicating. But in that early state of delirium, when networks began carrying blanket coverage of his press conferences and rallies, journalists missed an opportunity to challenge the candidate, Kelly said. Instead, she said, the news media helped fuel his rise.
“The media would sit there and say ‘it’s amazing how the polls are just up, up.’ And it’s like, you’re putting your thumb on the scale,” she said of the relentless media coverage. “It’s not an anti-Trump thing. It’s just a responsibility as journalists thing.”
Kelly is hardly the first to implicate the media. The degree to which news organizations, and especially TV networks, are to blame for Trump’s frontrunner status is subject to widespread debate, and has drawn comment from the president down.
Barack Obama recently scolded the media for enabling Trump, reminding the press corps that trails him that the job of political reporter is “more than just handing someone a microphone”. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center found that a majority of the American public agrees.
When asked about the unrelenting coverage of his campaign, three out of four Americans said they believed the former reality TV star had been given too much media coverage whereas just 18% of the respondents agreed Trump had been afforded the “right amount” of media attention, the survey found.
A New York Times analysis calculated that the live-wire coverage of his campaign had earned Trump $1.9bn worth of “free media” over the course of his campaign, compared with $746m for Hillary Clinton and $313m for Ted Cruz.
In the last month, cable news networks have mentioned Donald Trump more than 110,636 times, according to the GDELT Project, which uses data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive. At a distant second, Hillary Clinton was mentioned 29,931 times by the same nine networks, and Ted Cruz, Trump’s Republican rival, was mentioned just 17,020 times.
Media executives aren’t shy about how good Trump has been for ratings. CBS’s CEO, Les Moonves, has bragged that wall-to-wall Trump coverage “may not be good for America” but it’s “ damn good ” for the network. The CNN president, Jeff Zucker, defended the network’s lopsided coverage, and argued that Trump has made himself more available for interviews than other candidates.
What the numbers make clear is that Trump has been the dominant story of the election, eclipsing his rivals by almost every metric. But that’s not the whole picture, some media critics argue.
“It’s asking a lot of a business to put its business imperatives aside and serve some other master,” said Nicholas Lemann, the former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
Trump’s near domination of the news cycle is a consequence of the “if it bleeds, it leads” ethos of a deregulated and increasingly privatized broadcast industry, Lemann argued.
“When we wanted auto companies to make less polluting cars, we passed laws and made them make less polluting cars. We didn’t just say: ‘Please, please, please. You know it’s the right thing to do,’” he said.
But media critic Jay Rosen said Trump wholly rejected Kelly’s notion that journalists have had their “thumb on the scale”.
“If you’re a commercial hit and the frontrunner in the polls and a great story in the ‘man bites dog’ category, that’s winning the trifecta,” Rosen said in an email, making a reference to an industry maxim: if a dog bites a man it’s not news, but if a man bites a dog it’s news.
Instead of ignoring a newsmaker, Rosen argued, maybe journalists should expand the definition of what’s newsworthy to level the playing field.
“If a candidate has the best answers to the problems that trouble the most voters, is that itself considered newsworthy? Under the current system, the answer is no. If the candidate starts winning primaries, then the answer is yes! Is that the best system?” Rosen said.
During Wednesday’s interview, Kelly said that her team made the decision after that press conference at the border that it would not “wallpaper the show” with Trump rallies.
“When a postmortem is written” on the media’s coverage of Trump, Kelly recalled telling her executive producer, “let’s make sure we’re on the side of the angels.”
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