Democracy Dies in Darkness

In Theory | Opinion

The debates gave Donald Trump the nomination, and it's the media's fault

By Dan Kennedy

July 12, 2016 at 9:00 AM

Donald Trump shows off the size of his hands during a debate moderated by Fox News in Detroit in March. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we're talking about digital media ethics. Need a primer? Catch up here.

Dan Kennedy is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University in Boston and a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press." He blogs at Media Nation.

What could be more open and democratic than a debate? For all the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth now taking place over the massive amounts of free media bestowed upon Donald Trump, it was his dominating performance in the televised debates that allowed him to separate himself from the pack.

Yet the debates themselves were an exercise in faux democracy. What really mattered, especially early on, was who got invited, who got to stand where and who was allowed to speak the most. Unfortunately, the media organizations that ran the debates (along with the Republican National Committee) relied on polls to make those decisions right from the very first encounter in August.

Related: [How well-meaning political reformers are helping to elect President Trump]

Generally speaking, the summer before the summer before a presidential election is a time when no one except the most dedicated obsessives is paying attention to politics. Trump had shot to the top of the polls at that point mainly by virtue of his celebrity status. And so there he was on Aug. 6, 2015, front and center, absorbing a barrage of questions from Fox News's Megyn Kelly about his numerous misogynistic remarks.

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Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump continues to defend himself after his controversial comments about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Trump won that first debate by bullying the moderators and the other candidates with a series of insults and put-downs, thus setting the tone for the rest of the campaign. But he also enjoyed some enormous advantages that the media never should have given him.

The first and most obvious — at least to television viewers — was Trump's position at the center of the stage, a spot that he earned by virtue of his standing in the polls, which was little more than a function of his high name recognition. With his imposing physical presence and supreme self-confidence, he was able to loom over his adversaries.

Worse, the polls and his position on stage led the moderators to give him the most speaking time — nearly two minutes more than Jeb Bush, the second most loquacious. That pattern repeated itself at many of the debates that followed. And even when the moderators of those later debates turned their attention to the other candidates, all too often their questions amounted to a variation of "What do you think about what Trump just said?"

Worst of all, there was that matter of who was there and who wasn't. As CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist explained this year, the debate organizers decided to allow no more than 10 or 11 candidates on the main stage. "Beyond that," he said, "it was just too difficult to manage."

Thus at that first debate there were 10 candidates on stage and seven left off, chosen by their poll numbers. The uninvited were not fringe figures, as they included a sitting senator (Lindsey Graham), a sitting governor (Bobby Jindal) and the 2012 runner-up for the nomination (Rick Santorum). Given that the first Fox News debate drew 24 million viewers and that subsequent debates attracted audiences that were almost as large, those who were excluded never really had a chance to make their case — even if there were so-called undercard debates, and even if businesswoman Carly Fiorina did manage to graduate to the main stage.

Related: [Media bias is nothing new]

Some winnowing has to take place. Feist noted that hundreds of candidates had taken out the necessary paperwork to run for president. But news organizations should aim to keep their thumbs off the scale as much as possible by giving all legitimate candidates an equal opportunity to make their case.

Since becoming the presumptive GOP nominee, Trump has been subjected to tough coverage by the media and to withering criticism from within his own party. What you rarely hear, though, is that Trump's rise was not inevitable but, rather, was aided and abetted by media-sponsored debates that gave him an unfair advantage. A little self-awareness of their own role in creating this fiasco could help news organizations make better decisions moving forward about which stories to cover and which ones to avoid.

Needless to say, news organizations have been reveling in the ratings they received from their Trump-centric, made-for-television extravaganzas. But we're choosing a president, not who should get fired during the next episode of "The Apprentice." We should demand that our media give us more democracy — and trust that the public will find it interesting enough to watch.

Other perspectives:

Donald Trump is crashing the system. Journalists need to build a new one.

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