If we imagine American media as a hungry beast that thinks only about its next meal, then it is easy to see why Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has gone from strength to strength. Trump feeds the beast. With calculated and constant outrageousness, he dominates news coverage not just of the race for the Republican nomination but of the entire 2016 presidential competition. As veteran political observer Larry Sabato says, “It’s Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump and Trump.”
Network news coverage of Trump has been so overwhelming for so long that there are folks who argue that media outlets should simply press pause and dial down their coverage of Trump. That never works, and it shouldn’t. When a candidate is playing to the worst fears of Americans, what’s needed is more serious and intensive coverage that puts things in perspective.
In an atomized media environment, with old and new and social media providing constant flows of information, Trump will always figure out how to get the attention that he craves—and that powers his campaign. For instance, even as Republican leaders offer up mild complaints about Trump’s religious-test bigotries, they will welcome him to another debate stage December 15.
The key is not to neglect Trump, but rather to provide more and better coverage of the whole of the 2016 campaign.
All Trump all the time lets Trump define the discussion. People can agree with him or they can disagree with him. But they do not hear alternatives. As Credo Action’s Josh Nelson argues, “The media’s obsession with Donald Trump has real consequences for our Democracy. Desperate for ratings, the cable news networks have decided to broadcast nearly-continuous coverage of Donald Trump’s campaign at the expense of giving real issues the coverage they deserve.”
The point here is not to raise up alternative candidacies and ideas that are on the margins.
The point is to recognize that there are other candidates who are getting as much support as Trump, that are exciting crowds and gaining significant support, and that are advancing dramatically different responses to the challenges facing America. That’s not happening now.
Even when Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is covered (and it is important to note that she is now getting a lot less coverage than Trump), the coverage is increasingly focused on her responses to the billionaire’s obnoxious and irresponsible statements. When the Democratic front-runner calls out the Republican front-runner’s crude scheming to bar Muslims from the United States, that’s a story, to be sure. But it should also be a story when Clinton proposes a National Infrastructure Bank and a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s transportation system—as she did in St. Louis Friday.
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And, as Media Matters for America has illustrated, there should be a good deal more coverage of Bernie Sanders. “The network newscasts are wildly overplaying Trump, who regularly attracts between 20-30 percent of primary voter support, while at the same time wildly underplaying Sanders, who regularly attracts between 20-30 percent of primary voter support,” observed Media Matters’s Eric Boehlert in a report using data from media analyst Andrew Tyndall. “Obviously, Trump is the GOP front runner and it’s reasonable that he would get more attention than Sanders, who’s running second for the Democrats. But 234 total network minutes for Trump compared to just 10 network minutes for Sanders, as the Tyndall Report found?”
Trump and Sanders are dramatically different contenders offering polar opposite proposals for the United States. Yet each has attracted a passionate following. And that has translated into similar levels of support.
On the Republican side, the Real Clear Politics poll averages have Trump attracting 30.4 percent support nationally among voters who might reasonably be expected to participate in Republican primaries and caucuses. On the Democratic side, the RCP poll averages have Clinton leading. But Sanders is attracting 31 percent support in the Democratic race—a better number than Trump.
According to RCP, Trump has a polling average of 25 percent in the first-caucus state of Iowa. RCP has Sanders at 37 percent in Iowa—10 points better than Trump.
According to RCP, Trump is leading the Republican field in the first-primary state of New Hampshire with 28.7 percent. But Sanders is leading in New Hampshire, with RCP’s average putting him at 47.3 percent—almost 20 percent better than Trump.
Polls should not be the only determinants for coverage of campaigns—or for inclusion in debates. Candidates like Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Martin O’Malley, who are not polling big numbers, can still bring big ideas and necessary perspectives to the discourse.
But polls do provide a measure of perspective. And not just polls of the Republican and Democratic nomination contests. How about polls of potential November match-ups with Trump? Most of the match-up polls pit Clinton against Trump, and she is ahead; RCP’s average has her at 47 percent to 43.7 for the billionaire.
There are some polls that imagine a Sanders-Trump race, however. And the most recent of these, from Quinnipiac University, has Sanders leading Trump by 9 points—with the Democrat at 49 and the Republican at 40. (In the same survey, Clinton beats Trump by 7 points.)
Surveys from a number of battleground states show Sanders swamping Trump. In Wisconsin, for instance, the latest Marquette Law School poll has Sanders beating Trump 52-35, while Clinton beats Trump 48-38.
There is no need to suggest, or expect, an even balance in media coverage. That’s not how it works. But serious media coverage can keep Trump—and the 2016 race—in perspective. As Sanders’s campaign manager Jeff Weaver says, “The corporately-owned media may not like Bernie’s anti-establishment views but for the sake of American democracy they must allow for a fair debate in this presidential campaign.”
Right now, that’s not what Americans are getting from the network news.
According to Tyndall’s analysis, as reported by Media Matters:
* Trump has received more network coverage than all the Democratic candidates combined.
* Trump has accounted for 27 percent of all campaign coverage this year.
* Republican Jeb Bush received 56 minutes of coverage, followed by Ben Carson’s 54 minutes and Marco Rubio’s 22. (Did you notice the Bush figure? He’s garnered 56 minutes of network news coverage, far outpacing Sanders, even though he is currently wallowing in fifth place in the polls among Republicans.)
Trump should be covered. But so, too, should other candidates on the Republican and Democratic sides. There’s no need to dial down coverage of anyone, not Trump, not Bush. But there is a need to dial up coverage of candidates who are not Trump and who are not preaching lite variations on Trumpism—candidates like Clinton and Sanders who are speaking to America’s hopes rather than its fears, and who are attracting significantly higher levels of support than Trump.