Donald Trump: Media King, 2015

Story highlights

  • The Republican frontrunner has dominated the media since he entered the race
  • He has garnered far more coverage than his rivals

(CNN)Six months out from Donald Trump's foray into American politics, the national media is finally coming to terms with a hard truth: It's Trump's world, and they're just covering it.

The Republican front-runner has dominated the media since he entered the race, in more ways than one: He has garnered far more coverage than his rivals. He has repeatedly proven the pundits wrong. He has bent the media to his will by driving daily, sometimes hourly, news cycles. He has determined the focus of the national debates, and redefined the parameters of acceptable discourse. And he has done all of this while sticking his finger in the eye of the media that has done so much to fuel his rise.
    Meanwhile, the media have kept their focus squarely on Trump, even as he rails against the press as "dishonest scum" and encourages his supporters to boo and heckle reporters at his campaign rallies. Trump frequently accuses the media of refusing to show the large crowds that turn out for his rallies, and, at one recent event, in Michigan, he shamed a camerawoman into turning her lens on the big crowd behind her -- literally directing the media's coverage of his own campaign.
    Trump also exhibited a brilliant grasp of social media, and particularly Twitter, where he commands nearly 5.5 million followers (but only follows 50 people himself). More than any other candidate or strategist, he understood how a single tweet could drive the news cycle and spin a new narrative. He knew that the media was staffed with young political reporters thirsting for copy. While other campaigns guarded their candidates and issued cautious statements, Trump was churning out entertaining and provocative tweets and comical yet searing Instagram videos attacking rivals that were perfectly suited to the media's desire for controversy.
    The result is a presidential campaign that might have been envisioned by "Network" author Paddy Chayefsky, in which the media broadcasts anti-media tirades to an unprecedented number of captivated voters.
    Trump has created this reality, journalists and political strategists said as they reflected back on their Year of Trump, by exploiting widespread anger and mistrust of the political establishment -- and of the mainstream media -- as he applies his unique knack for pageantry, populist rhetoric and political incorrectness as the antidote.
    "There's a perfect storm here," Roger Stone, who formerly served as an adviser to Trump's campaign, told CNN. "Voters have a total disgust with the political establishment and the media, which they see as complicit and in partnership with one another. At the same time, Trump has been building a public image since the 1970s, and being a reality television star has brought a whole different dimension to his persona."
    David Axelrod, the chief strategist for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns and a CNN contributor, said, "Trump is an impresario, he's an entertainer. He knows how to use the media."
    Whatever Trump's fate in the 2016 campaign, there's no question that 2015 belonged to him. Trump set the terms and his unique ability to defy gravity challenged journalists' long-held understandings about American politics.

    Driving the year

    By every metric, Donald Trump owned the news cycle in 2015.
    He was the most coveted interview of the campaign, and news organizations tripped over one another to book him on their shows. He received vastly more coverage on network and cable news than all of his competitors, gave more interviews, was the subject of more profiles, and had more mentions in print and online. And whenever one of his competitors threatened to steal the spotlight, Trump quickly wrested it back with an outrageous comment, biting attack, or divisive policy proposal.
    While the media gave Trump a seemingly unlimited amount of oxygen, it was the candidate himself who had earned it -- because he was a celebrity, because he was a political phenomenon, because he drove ratings. And he had an uncanny, almost instinctual, feel for what news networks and their audiences wanted.
    "Donald Trump understands a show business maxim, which is that people like twists in a plot," said Frank Rich, the New York Magazine columnist and co-executive producer of HBO's "Veep."
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    "A surprise is by definition news. Every big turn of his has been a surprise," Rich continued. "What's not news is when a candidate says, 'Oh, I conducted a town hall in New Hampshire,' or, 'I courted religious right leaders in Iowa'."
    Stone described Trump as "completely unscripted and uncoached, a one-man show."
    "You have this whole spontaneous quality, because you have no idea what he might say next," Stone explained. "He doesn't even know what he's going to say. He's a man working without a net."
    By commanding the narrative on a day-to-day basis, Trump overshadowed all the other candidates. Establishment hopefuls like Jeb Bush, Scott Walker and Marco Rubio, and outspoken candidates like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul were forced to take a back seat to the Trump show. Even Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and the Democrats have received less media attention because of Trump.
    "I'll give you one example," Sanders said in an interview that aired Thursday on CNN's "New Day." "A recent study showed on ABC Evening News, Trump over a period of time got 81 minutes of time. Bernie Sanders got 20 seconds. Now you tell me why."
    Sanders added, "I think it has to do with the fact that Trump is very smart. He knows that media is not so interested in the serious issues facing this country. They love bombastic remarks. They love silly remarks. I think this is more of an indictment of the media than it is Trump."

    Redefining the debate

    The recurring plot twist of Trump's campaign has been his ability to repeatedly insult and offend his rivals on both sides of the aisle and minority groups -- Muslims, Mexicans, women, the disabled -- only to gain support while doing so. The xenophobic or inflammatory remarks Trump has made would have almost certainly jettisoned any other candidate. For Trump, they only raised his standing, among Republican primary voters and the broader electorate nationally, according to some polls.
    It took the media a long time to catch on to their new reality.
    With every fresh insult, pundits sounded his death knell. "DON VOYAGE! Trump is toast after insult," the New York Post declared after Trump said that Sen. John McCain, who was a prisoner of war, wasn't, in fact, a war hero. In The New York Times, Nate Cohn declared the remark "a turning point," and "a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump's candidacy went from boom to bust." That was July.
    Trump quickly proved he was the exception to the rule, and the media was left awestruck and dumbfounded by his ability to flout the conventions of American politics. It wasn't until Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, in early December, that some of the nation's most esteemed journalists and influential news outlets felt compelled to label the Republican front-runner a liar, a demagogue, a racist and worse. And yet, once again, Trump's support grew. As of Christmas, he is registering an average of 35 percent in national polls -- the highest level of backing he's had, and more than double that of the second-place candidate, Ted Cruz, according to the most recent CNN/ORC poll.
    "You never criticize a war hero like John McCain, you never say Muslims should be banned from the country, you never use misogynistic language," Rich said. "He's changed the narrative, and our media don't adjust so easily to changes in narrative. He's just kept blindsiding everyone."
    While confounding journalists, Trump was also redefining the terms of the national debate. Banning the world's second-largest religious group, sending every illegal immigrant back across the border -- these ideas were usually confined to the fringes. Now all of a sudden they were front and center, and resonating with a large swath of primarily white, non-college-educated voters who believed their country was being given over to minority groups.
    "He is speaking to a constituency that is real and he is speaking in very vivid terms to that constituency," Axelrod said of Trump. "He's the voice for alienated, non-college-educated voters who feel they have been fundamentally screwed."
    Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks said Trump was not available for comment, and the campaign declined to comment for this story. Trump, though, is by no means shy about his feelings toward the media, of course, and recently joked that, though he hates some reporters, he'd never kill them -- as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has spoken highly of, is alleged to have done.

    Sticking it to the media

    As the media were obsessing over Trump's unlikely rise, the real estate mogul was dancing an artful two-step: On the one hand, he courted reporters and editors and took full advantage of the free press ("He basically turned the news media into his advertising vehicle," Axelrod said.) At the same time, he railed against the media, declaring its members "dishonest scum," and at rallies and on Twitter singling out reporters and media organizations he disliked.
    Trump frequently criticized Megyn Kelly, one of the most popular personalities on Fox News, and even appeared to suggest that she had been menstruating during the first GOP debate (although Trump denied that). "There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her... wherever," Trump had said. He mocked Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter, by making fun of his physical disability (again, he later denied this). CNN, too, has not been spared from his scorching on the trail. And as recently as Christmas eve, Trump on Twitter blasted a couple of reporters at The New York Times as "third rate" and also attacked NBC.
    The attacks always won applause because a vast majority of conservatives don't trust the media. According to a Gallup survey released in September, just 32% of Republicans and 33% of independents expressed trust in the mass media.
    For journalists, it could be jarring to watch Trump rail against the media at a rally and then glad-hand reporters on a rope line less than 24 hours later. When Trump first referred to members of the press as "dishonest scum" in December, he said it applied to 70 or 75% of them. But after a GOP debate later in the month, Trump could be found basking in the glow of the floodlights, talking to everyone -- even Katy Tur of NBC News, despite the fact that just days earlier he'd referred to her as "a third-rate reporter" who "should be fired for dishonest reporting."
    "He clearly loves the media on some level because it represents attention, which he craves, and many have argued that a large part of his success is due to all the free media he gets," said Molly Ball, who covers the presidential campaign for The Atlantic. "Yet bashing the press and practically siccing his supporters on the press pen is easily a third of his current stump routine."
    Mark Leibovich, the national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, said Trump's approach "actually makes perfect sense." For a candidate playing to conservative audiences who loathe the media, "a smart media strategy involves this very two-step," even if it might be "hypocrisy."
    By the end of the year, both Trump and the journalists seemed to be in on the joke. Trump would gesture to the "dishonest" press at his rallies and his supporters would jeer -- never mind that Trump's rally was being carried live across Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.
    "Donald Trump is a performer," Axelrod said. "That doesn't take away from fact that he has incredible instincts about where people's vulnerabilities are -- but at the end of the day he's a performer."
    "I don't know how much of what he says he actually believes," Axelrod continued. "The other night he sort of joked about killing reporters. The truth is, he likes them."