Donald Trump, media manipulator in chief

Trump discusses hosting Saturday Night Live
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    Trump discusses hosting Saturday Night Live

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Trump discusses hosting Saturday Night Live 01:24

Story highlights

  • Obeidallah: Forget whether Donald Trump was funny on "SNL"; the important point is that it's a win for his media strategy
  • He says Trump distracts the media with spectacle and personality while he skates by with no real policy expertise

Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM's weekly program "The Dean Obeidallah Show," a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Donald Trump is winning! I'm not talking about the GOP presidential nomination, but about his success in controlling the way the media has covered him in the campaign.

Trump hosting "Saturday Night Live" this past weekend was a prime example. Last week the media coverage of Trump was almost exclusively focused on his upcoming appearance on SNL: Would Trump be funny? Could this hurt his campaign? Would a person yell out during the live show that Trump was a racist in protest at Trump's past comments about Latinos? And the list goes on. (I contributed to that coverage with this piece and with CNN appearances.)
Well, the Trump-helmed "SNL" has passed.
    This has prompted many in the media to now ask: Was the show funny? Did any of the sketches make Trump look unpresidential? What was the point of Larry David calling Trump a racist during the show's opening monologue?
    When the media focuses on these types of questions, I can only imagine that Trump must be smiling like a master puppeteer, making his marionettes (the media) dance. This is Trump's world, and the media are merely players in it.
    Every time the media focuses on events such as Trump on "SNL" or his Twitter feuds and his fights with Fox News' hosts, the media is not pressing Trump on his understanding of public policy issues. And that's a big win for the master media manipulator Trump.
    When Trump, or any presidential candidate for that matter, talks in detail about political issues, it's generally divisive.
    In fact when Trump unveiled his tax plan in late September, that led many in the media to focus on whether his proposal was feasible, would it be revenue neutral as he claimed, was it a giveaway to the wealthiest Americans, etc.? It also gave his political opponents, such as Jeb Bush, fodder to attack Trump on a policy issue that could attract some GOP primary voters to his candidacy.
    But potentially the biggest downside to Trump talking nuanced policy issues is that he has yet to impress us that he truly has a grasp of them, especially those outside the area of economics.
    This is a guy who, when asked on "Meet the Press" in August where he gets his military advice from, responded: "Well, I watch the shows. I mean, I really see a lot of great -- you know, when you watch your show and all of the other shows." In Trump's defense, you can learn a lot about fighting if you watch "The Real Housewives of New Jersey."
    And on Sunday, when asked by CNN's Jake Tapper how he would handle ISIS, Trump responded, "we've got to hit ISIS hard ... hit their source of wealth, which is the oil." But when Tapper pressed him for details on how he would go about hitting ISIS "hard," Trump coyly stated, "I hate to say specifically because ... I'd hate to give up all my information up front."
    If Trump had been a former Army general or had even the slightest experience in foreign policy, you might be able to feel confident he truly has a plan. But let's be honest, you get the sense Trump simply hasn't given this much thought.
    So what does Trump do to cover for his weakness? He steers the media away from topics he perceives as being detrimental to his campaign into areas where he's strongest. And who can blame him? Why not play to your strengths?
    Plus, let's be blunt, most people are more interested in hearing about a celebrity-infused Twitter brawl than about wonky policy details. So for the media, going along with covering Trump the personality over the potential policymaker has an upside.
    Between now and the February 1 Iowa GOP caucus, we will see even more of Trump trying to steer the media away from policy issues. Maybe in December we will see Trump show up on "The Big Bang Theory" as Sheldon's long-lost uncle. Perhaps in January, The Donald will serve as a guest judge on "The Voice" or don a beard and appear on "Duck Dynasty." And don't be surprised if Trump picks a Twitter fight with Kanye West, Miley Cyrus and a slew of Kardashians.
    With the Iowa caucus only a little over two months away, it's the media's call: Let Trump pull the strings, or cut them and dance on your own? Letting Trump remain in control probably means higher ratings, but it also likely means a less informed electorate when it comes to Trump's views on policy issues. So what's it going to be?