NEW YORK -- As the “Summer of Trump” leads into the second Republican debate Wednesday night, the real estate developer will remain front and center.
Among the 11 candidates set to participate in the CNN debate, Donald Trump will have the prime spot on stage because he is leading in the polls. But the prominent placement is also fitting because Trump has been the media's runaway star in the Republican primary show, and his candidacy has become a frequently recurring storyline for CNN in particular. Trump has phoned into weekday, evening and Sunday programs on the network -- a luxury only he seems to enjoy -- and has given extensive interviews to CNN hosts in the lobby of his own Trump Tower, including one for a prime-time special. Even when he's not on air himself, Trump's provocative comments have sparked countless news segments and pundit panels on the network.
CNN has also covered several Trump campaign events live, including one that recently bumped a tenth anniversary special on Hurricane Katrina. Last week, staffers asked CNN President Jeff Zucker about that programming decision, The Wrap reported, reflecting internal gripes over the volume of Trump coverage.
But with Wednesday night’s event approaching, debate moderator Jake Tapper and top executives defended CNN, saying it's understandable that the network would provide airtime to the Republican front-runner and suggesting that other top candidates haven't made themselves similarly accessible. And Tapper balked at the suggestion that CNN gives Trump preferential treatment by permitting him to choose the conditions for his interviews.
“He is the front-runner," Tapper told The Huffington Post. He added that Trump sat down with him in person for his third episode hosting CNN's “State of the Union" -- and answered every question.
“If anything, the question should be why is Hillary Clinton, or other candidates, why are they not doing as many interviews as Donald Trump?” Tapper added.
“When the front-runner for the Republican or Democratic presidential nominations is available for an interview, of course I will recommend that a program do an interview,” CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist told HuffPost. “There’s nothing unusual about that whatsoever."
Like Tapper, Feist argued that the difference between Trump and previous front-runners is that he's made himself more available.
Indeed, Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, kept the press at arm’s -- or rope's -- length for much of the early part of her presidential campaign. She’s still only done a handful of national TV interviews during nearly five months as a candidate. Similarly, Mitt Romney adopted a cautious media strategy as the Republican front-runner early on in the 2012 cycle.
The concern over Trump coverage isn’t just that a disproportionate amount of attention may be given to one candidate, but also that CNN -- and other media outlets -- may be turning to Trump to drive ratings and clicks, and thus profits. Last month’s Fox News debate drew a record 24 million viewers, and there are high expectations this time around as well. As a result, CNN is reportedly charging 40 times the average rate for a 30-second ad on Wednesday night.
Trump sent Zucker a letter Wednesday touting his ability to drive ratings, in which he urged the CNN president to give the debate profits to veterans groups.
CNN has still not commented on that proposal, but in an interview with The Los Angeles Times published Sunday, Zucker similarly defended the network's coverage of Trump on the grounds that he's ahead in the polls and easily accessible.
"As a front-runner, he is going to attract the most amount of attention," Zucker told the paper. "I'm not going to apologize for the fact that he accepts our invitations to come on the air when many of the others, whom we invite just as much as we invite Mr. Trump, do not accept those invitations. I'm not going to penalize him just because the others decline to come on."