One of the most persistent — and persistently wrong — storylines surrounding the 2016 presidential race is that somehow the media has installed Donald Trump as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
The theory goes like this: Donald Trump is good for ratings/clicks/whatever metric for success you want to cite. The media, knowing this, over-covers Trump at the expense of every other candidate in the field. Trump rises in the polls as a result of that flood of coverage.
This tweet — sent to me this afternoon — captures the sentiment perfectly.
@TheFix He hasn't done that himself. Media, particularly cable news, has made a conscious decision to give Trump disproportionate coverage.
— Michael Freeman (@michaelpfreeman) September 15, 2015
I have two words for that theory: absolutely ridiculous.
Here's why: To believe that Donald Trump is a media creation born of a desire for ratings, you have to believe one other thing: that conservatives, who comprise much of Trump's support base at the moment, take their marching orders from the media. Which, of course, they don't.
Outside of Fox News Channel and the Drudge Report, conservatives trust almost no one in the media. Check out this chart from Pew's great 2014 study on media consumption habits and political polarization.
But wait, the conspiracy theorists will argue! Fox News has covered Trump a TON. Sure. But the dominant storyline between FNC and Trump has been his battles with Megyn Kelly, the face of the network, and the pushback that Trump's attacks on Kelly have occasioned from Fox head honcho Roger Ailes. That's not exactly the sort of storyline that would catapult Trump to the top of the polls.
The reality of Trump's rise is far more complicated than simply blaming the ratings-driven media. Trump has tapped — whether intentionally or by accident — into a deep and powerful distrust and dislike (bordering on hate) that the Republican base feels toward politicians including (and maybe especially) those within their own party.
Trump's anti-politics message, his outsized persona that screams "I AM NOT A POLITICIAN" and, frankly, the curiosity around his celebrity is what has fueled Trump's rise. To suggest otherwise gives him too little credit — and, like him or hate him, he deserves credit for engineering this amazingly sustained rise to the top of the GOP field.
As to the media's coverage: Trump is getting the attention deserving of a front-runner. If every poll — nationally and in early voting states — showed, say, Rand Paul leading by between five and 15 points, then Paul would be getting lots and lots of coverage.
Would Rand Paul be getting as much coverage as Trump? It's tough to say, but probably not. I will acknowledge that Trump is very good for ratings and almost certainly better than if Paul was the front-runner. (A Rand Paul-led race doesn't make 24 million people tune in to the first Republican debate last month, for example.)
But both of these things can (and are) true: (1) Donald Trump is great for ratings; and (2) his current status as the Republican front-runner has very little to do with the media allegedly "chasing" ratings by covering everything he does.
If you are looking to "blame" someone (or someones) for the pole position Trump currently enjoys, you should look around you. Trump is resonating with the American public — or at least a portion of the American public — thanks to his ability to channel their fears, hopes and frustrations. The media didn't create Trump, and the media won't bring Trump down. Only Trump can determine what happens from here. Deal with it.