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