Veteran political reporter Walter Shapiro, who has been covering presidential campaigns since the 1980s, thinks these are dark days for journalism.
In a blistering Roll Call column on Thursday, Shapiro lambasted the media for its obsession with megalomaniacal presidential candidate Donald Trump, which has helped propel the reality TV star to the top of the Republican primary field.
“Since I began covering presidential campaigns in 1980, I can think of nothing as unfair as the disproportionate media attention that has been lavished on Trump from the beginning,” he writes.
No primary candidate in history (not even Barack Obama in 2008) has ever had most of his speeches broadcast live on cable TV. No political figure has ever been consistently allowed to call into the Sunday interview shows instead of appearing in person. For much of the campaign so far, the only way other Republican presidential candidates could get attention was to be attacked by Trump or to attack the bumptious billionaire.
Indeed, network coverage of Trump far outpaces that of any other GOP candidate, according to an analysis from the Television News Archive. Trump accounts for more than 50 percent of mentions of the Republican field. And as The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone pointed out recently, the businessman needn’t have bothered buying air time for his first political ad -- cable networks ran it 60 times for free.
News organizations have cited Trump's front-runner status to defend their decision to cover the candidate. A CBS/The New York Times poll released this week shows the businessman with 36 percent support among GOP primary voters, followed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at 19 percent.
But as Shapiro points out, this justification is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“This saturation coverage, of course, fuels Trump’s poll numbers, which are then used to justify the saturation coverage,” he writes. “And the merry-go-round keeps spinning.”
At The Washington Post, political scientist John Sides has looked at the relationship between the media’s coverage of Trump and his poll numbers. Sure enough, Trump’s standing in the Republican field only began to rise after the media began its binge.
“It’s tempting to think that each surge is somehow the result of each candidate’s idiosyncratic appeal to Republican voters,” Sides wrote. “But a simpler explanation is this: when a pollster interrupts people’s lives and asks them about a presidential primary that doesn’t formally begin for months, a significant number of people will mention whichever candidate happens to be in the news these days.”
The media is certainly rewarded for its coverage: Trump is, as he likes to remind journalists, a “ratings machine.” Case in point: The candidate hosted NBC's “Saturday Night Live” in November despite Latino groups urging the network to cancel the reality TV star's appearance after he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.” The head of NBC Entertainment said on Wednesday that the ratings were worth the backlash.
“What makes this capitulation to ratings and clicks by the news media so depressing is that these decisions are empowering Trump -- the first serious presidential candidate in modern history who exudes disdain for the office of the presidency,” Shapiro writes.