The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The media’s $2 billion gift to Trump

The New York Times confirms what media and Donald Trump critics (overlapping groups) have been saying about Trump’s domination of so-called earned media:

Mr. Trump earned $400 million worth of free media last month, about what John McCain spent on his entire 2008 presidential campaign. Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer, says that Mr. Trump “has no weakness in any of the media segments” — in other words, he is strong in every type of earned media, from television to Twitter. Over the course of the campaign, he has earned close to $2 billion worth of media attention, about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history. It is also twice the estimated $746 million that Hillary Clinton, the next best at earning media, took in. Senator Bernie Sanders has earned more media than any of the Republicans except Mr. Trump.

Yes, 2 billion dollars.

So while anti-Trump forces have dropped millions in the past month, understand that is a drop in the bucket of the flood of free air time Trump has received for months. Moreover, the difference between essentially free air time during the programming and a sprinkling of 30-second ads is tremendous. Trump was the show — for months — on all the cable and network news outlets.  The excuse that “Trump made more news” does not fly when one considers the dozens of interviews Trump was allowed to do by phone and nonstop coverage of campaign rallies that did not differ all that much from one another.

This leads to a few conclusions. First, when analyzing “how Trump happened,” TV talking heads should be honest and acknowledge their unprecedented role. Second, it likely will not continue in the general election when Hillary Clinton’s aggressive campaign and the media’s natural bias will kick in, allocating a more even distribution of air time. Third, if not weighing in in favor of doing away with all campaign finance limits, this year’s cycle certainly speaks for allowing candidates additional leeway if an opponent convinces the media (however one would measure it) to collectively grant him an enormous advantage in air time. Fourth, it is not clear what if any pressure the Republican National Committee or other campaigns put on cable and TV news, but they should have raised complaints early and often. (Would this have made a difference? Probably not, but perhaps the media would have leveled the playing field with regard to call-in interviews.)

Democrats may find this all amusing, but they should be just as concerned and rethink their fixation with limiting third-party spending. Trump could easily have run as a Democrat, and other media impresarios will come along in the future. Unless Democrats are willing to roll the dice on the media’s willingness to self-police (a poor bet), they should reflect on the Trump lessons as well.