Media Ratings And The Rise Of Donald Trump -- The Dawn Of The Apocalypse?

I believe strongly that Hillary Clinton will win next Tuesday.  The metrics to date, the vast array of polling data, the difference in the two campaign’s ground games, and the fact that Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to serve all augur towards a victory for Secretary Clinton.  If the unthinkable happens, however, and the man GOP consultant Mike Murphy refers to as “The Orange Menace” actually is elected, the recriminations in both parties will be long and vitriolic, covered extensively for weeks, and appropriately so.  Obamacare premium increase, the tepid economic recovery, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Donald Trump himself, Wiki-leaks, and the Republican establishment’s collective cowardice, all will receive significant blame, or credit.  But one entity would bear more responsibility and yet will likely receive less criticism, than any other – and that is the mainstream media.  

For much of the Republican primary, Trump magnificently manipulated the media to suit his campaign. He called in to shows with as serious a pedigree as Meet the Press and it was fun and games all around. Cable networks prayed he would show up at debates because his presence meant a ratings bonanza.  Talking about him meant coverage and eyeballs, and so he understandably and cleverly dominated the discourse across the cable news spectrum, and effectively obscured the message and the meaning of virtually all of his opponents, until he alone, emerged victorious. This is not to say that he did not earn the nomination. He did. He deserves credit for his media performance and understanding the medium far better than any of his competitors.  He too deserves credit for appreciating and capturing the mood of the populist Republican base far better than any establishment Republican, and for then maneuvering around and ahead of Ted Cruz who similarly bet correctly that a meaningful portion of the GOP primary electorate had long ago abandoned more mainstream Republican ideology. 

Since capturing the nomination, the media writ large claims to have corrected itself – and has to some degree.  Granted, the coverage of The Donald has become tougher.  There has been occasional discussion of his failure to share his tax returns, for example.  But most of the coverage he complains about in fact is simply video footage of his own speeches, so that does not exactly qualify as insightful or actual criticism.  From where I sit, my presumption has long been that the relative free pass given Donald Trump by the media in exchange for a ratings bonanza was deemed acceptable by those granting the pass because they believed he was never actually going to win.  But on the increasingly plausible chance that this wager was wrongly placed, our country is in for a world of hurt. 

It is now too late to focus finally and extensively on why Donald Trump failed to release his taxes like every other Presidential candidate in our nation’s modern history.  It is now too late to focus more seriously on why the Russian government is directly intruding in our electoral process.  It is now too late to more closely examine Donald Trump and his Son’s many tweets and retweets that reflect all too closely the narrative of a hateful and racist alt-right universe.  It is now too late to examine why it was and – to this day apparently is – still ok for Trump’s ex-campaign manager to be simultaneously on a campaign payroll and that of CNN’s  It is now too late to explore whether Trump’s eight figure obligation to the state owned Bank of China is something we should be concerned about.  No, if Donald Trump wins, it will simply be too late.

In that foreboding scenario, the recriminations for the media this cycle will run far and deep.  People will go back and analyze why, as George W. Bush’s speechwriter noted in his recent editorial in the Atlantic that the media has “devoted more minutes of the network television airtime to Clinton’s email misjudgment than to all policy topics combined.”  People will look back and wonder why it was mainly Clinton surrogates who had to point to the U.S. intelligence consensus that Putin’s government was behind the attempted email take downs of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and various of Hillary’s very loyal and hard working aides – all in an attempt to influence directly a U.S. Presidential election.

Maybe in the event Donald Trump wins, the network executives at Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN will reexamine their practices and return at least in part to an era of more objective television journalism.  While that would be a welcome change to benefit our national discourse, as with so many other things this election season, it will sadly be too late …

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