How Cable News Allows Donald Trump to Control the Media Conversation

Of all the factors that fueled Donald Trump’s rampage to the Republican presidential nomination, perhaps none has been more consequential than the reality TV provocateur’s knack for generating free publicity via an avalanche of breathless media coverage. A recent study estimated that Trump received the equivalent of $55 million in free advertising during 2015 via positive and neutral news coverage from media outlets—50 percent more than his next closest Republican challenger.

This massive advantage in complimentary exposure—especially from cable news networks such as CNN, MSNBC and Fox News—was a boon to Trump throughout the primary, essentially subsidizing the rest of his spare, largely self-financed operation. The Trump campaign spent a paltry $18.5 million on paid advertisements throughout the primary—less than every other top-tier candidate in either party, according to Wesleyan Media Project—and still dominated the race from wire to wire.

Given former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic lead in fundraising and his own beggared operation, the Republican nominee will likely be forced to rely on his gift for generating coverage throughout the general election. But with only two candidates vying for media attention, can Trump continue to single-handedly control the conversation as he did for the duration of the Republican primary?

So far, the answer appears to be yes. A new media analysis conducted by our team at Hattaway Communications (led by my colleague Ellie Sandmeyer) suggests that, even in this new landscape, Trump continues to drive the narrative and dictate the parameters of press coverage in a major way.

We analyzed transcripts from 14 primetime cable news programs in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub attack and found that Trump’s responses received nearly three times as much coverage as those from his Democratic opponent. From June 13 to June 17, these programs broadcasted clips of Trump discussing the shooting 305 times, compared to just 112 such clips of Clinton. Put differently, Trump received a staggering 73 percent of the airtime allotted for responses from the presidential candidates to a national tragedy.

But Trump didn’t just receive a disproportionately large percentage of the volume of coverage—he exerted an overwhelming amount of influence over the content of the conversation as well. Broadcasters amplified Trump’s statements; coverage of Clinton focused on her reaction to them.

Based on a linguistic analysis of those same transcripts, we found that Trump’s ideas dominated the conversation on cable news—especially the claims that President Obama was insufficiently concerned with fighting terrorism and even somehow complicit in the attacks. His calls to block Muslims from entering the country also featured prominently. By contrast, broadcasters selected clips of Clinton that focused on her reaction to Trump’s antics while largely neglecting the more substantial, policy-focused aspects of her response, such as her strong appeal for new legislation to help prevent gun violence.

This data indicate that Trump’s ability to dictate the media conversation remains unparalleled, at least on television. The cable news networks have abetted an omnipresent narrative that revolves almost exclusively around Trump, his latest rhetorical outburst and others’ reactions to his actions—rather than an equitable, substantive airing of ideas from both candidates.

Yet even as Trump continues to dominate the narrative, it appears that his free pass to complimentary coverage may be running out. Some observers have posited that journalists have taken a tougher approach to covering Trump in recent weeks; our data suggests this may be the case on cable news as well.

To study this dynamic, our team conducted a separate linguistic analysis of the direct responses offered by anchors and commentators following the airing of a Trump statement regarding the Orlando attacks. We found evidence that many journalists did, in fact, treat his statements with a fair amount of scrutiny. In 46 percent of cases, a Trump statement was immediately followed by a negative or unfavorable comment, compared to just 33 percent of the time for a positive or favorable comment.

While the real estate mogul remains the primary topic of conversation, the media reactions to his post-Orlando rhetoric have been scrupulous. And perhaps not coincidentally, the wave of journalistic incredulity surrounding his increasingly outlandish statements has coincided with a dramatic decline in Trump’s once buoyant poll numbers.

Donald Trump has long been a believer in the notion that any publicity is good publicity. While his talent for garnering truckloads of media attention appears likely to carry into the general election, Trump’s fortunes in November may depend on whether that age-old adage proves accurate. So far, the returns don’t appear promising.

Steve Pierce is a senior associate at Hattaway Communications. He has advised numerous successful Democratic candidates.

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