[Also published at Huffington Post.] He’s a genius at exploiting the media, if at nothing else: Donald Trump’s rise has been fueled by almost unbelievable amounts of free coverage — well over $2 billion worth so far.
Many have complained that this makes the media, hungry for Trump-driven ratings, complicit in the elevation of a dangerously unqualified reality show star to the near-summit of political power.
There’s standard media response, though: Trump gets more coverage simply because he’s more available. It was repeated Sunday by Face the Nation‘s John Dickerson in The New York Times Magazine:
If the others don’t want to talk, then that’s on them. In a lot of cases, Trump was the only one who would talk on any given Sunday. Talking to the press is not always good. Donald Trump seems to think it is, but most of his opponents didn’t. He was getting more airtime, but he was also the only one who was as available as he was.
Seems reasonable, and I accept that Dickerson, a fine journalist, believes it’s true.
But I think he’s kidding himself, along with all the others who make this claim.
I’ve helped book interviews for three presidential campaigns. I can tell you what happens — under normal circumstances — when one candidate is more available than another. That candidate gets turned away, in the name of media balance.
On the 2008 Obama campaign, for example, our interview-booking operation was far better than John McCain’s. Every day, we offered opportunities with the principals (the presidential and vice presidential candidates) and their spouses, and/or with high level surrogates, such as governors, members of Congress, and celebrities. We booked a lot of them, but we also were frequently told, “Sorry, we have to say no because the other side isn’t making anyone available, and we can’t look like we’re favoring you.”
That’s the normal state of affairs. What’s been happening with Trump is not normal.
And the only explanation that seems credible is the obvious one: Trump, thanks to his very outrageousness, is ratings gold. Turning him down would mean throwing away a fortune. Consider what he’s done for CNN:
When CNN President Jeff Zucker saw the ratings for Fox News’s first Republican debate last August — a staggering 24 million viewers — he immediately called up his head of advertising sales and told her to raise prices, by a lot…
Since the start of the year, when the primary season began in earnest, CNN’s prime-time audience has more than doubled to 435,000 viewers a night in its target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, according to Nielsen…
Mr. Zucker acknowledges that CNN has been criticized for the ample airtime it has devoted to Mr. Trump, but he dismisses most of that as coming from those who “just don’t like Donald Trump.”
“To his credit, he has been willing to submit to interviews, town halls, or whatever, in a way that I still don’t understand why many of the others weren’t willing to do,” he said.
I accept that Zucker believes this explanation just as much as CBS’s Dickerson does. But we’re talking about an industry where, in business terms, ratings are everything: deciding the fates of networks, and the careers of individual employees. Well-intentioned people can lose site of what’s really going on, even when — or especially when — they’re surrounded by the evidence.
They’re like the young fish in the parable: An old fish swims up to them and asks, “How’s the water?”
“What’s water?” they reply.