I've written repeatedly — and self-righteously — about my belief that ascribing the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary race to media complicity is ridiculous. And I believed every word.
But, a new study by Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University casts serious doubts on my position as it documents not only the outsized coverage Trump received — from TV and digital media — in the early days of his campaign but also how overwhelmingly positive that coverage was.
Let's go through a few of the most important findings from the study, which is based on "an analysis of thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post" during 2015.
First, it notes that Trump received considerable media coverage during 2015 despite the fact that he was neither a leader in polls or in the fundraising chase — two indicators of uneven media coverage of candidates in past races, according to the Shorenstein study. As the study reports:
When his news coverage began to shoot up, [Trump] was not high in the trial-heat polls and had raised almost no money. Upon entering the race, he stood much taller in the news than he stood in the polls. By the end of the invisible primary, he was high enough in the polls to get the coverage expected of a frontrunner. But he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media.
That analysis offers a direct correlation between the amount of media attention Trump received in the early days of the race with his ability to rise in the polls. And not only that. It also puts a price tag on just how much Trump's free media attention was worth to his campaign — and how it compared with the free media his rivals received.
But wait, you say (and I said): All coverage isn't positive! Counting negative coverage about Trump as free coverage misses the mark! Except that the chart above doesn't include negative coverage. It only tabulates positive and neutral coverage; "Positive coverage is always 'good news' for a political candidate, but so, too, is neutral coverage in the pre-primary period because it elevates the candidate’s profile," the study's authors conclude.
There's more in the study about the tenor of the coverage on Trump. This chart in particular is hard to ignore.
All eight of the major news outlets that the Shorenstein Center studied gave Trump a majority of neutral or positive coverage. That's remarkable. The chart above also calls into question the long-standing argument that cable news might have "gone easy" on Trump but digital outlets were far tougher on him. (Worth noting: The way this study defines "neutral" coverage is, by its very nature, somewhat subjective. It's possible then that the numbers above could be moved around somewhat. But the general thrust seems clear.)
I think it's important to always take stock of how we are doing in terms of our coverage and what we did wrong and what we could do better. And I think that self-examination includes, when necessary, acknowledging when an argument you had made is no longer backed up by evidence. It's hard for me to look at the Shorenstein Center study and conclude anything other than that the media played a larger role in the rise of Trump than I previously believed.
What I won't say is that we — as a media collective or The Washington Post in particular — let Trump off easy. We didn't. We wrote lots and lots of items digging into his proposals (here's one on the cost of building the wall), his statements and his factual accuracy. As a collective, we did less of that than I initially thought, at least according to the Shorenstein Center. But that doesn't mean we did none of it.
And I totally reject the various conspiracy theories about Trump's press coverage — the most common of which comes from Republicans and goes like this: "You guys handed Trump the nomination because you knew he'd be the easiest one for Hillary Clinton to beat." That remains totally ridiculous.
Why did Trump get an outsized level of attention for someone in his polling place at the start of the race? A few things:
1. His celebrity. He is the first genuine celebrity of our reality TV age to run for president. And that was — and is — fascinating.
2. His approach. Journalists are biased in favor of good stories and quotable candidates. Trump's willingness to say and do things other candidates would never dream of saying or doing made him inherently appealing.
3. His rise. The media may have helped Trump get off the ground. But once it became clear he was moving up, he became the story in a way that any fast-mover — Howard Dean in 2004, Mike Huckabee in 2008, etc. — does.
Here's the Shorenstein study on that third point:
The reason inheres in journalists’ tendency to build their narratives around the candidates’ positions in the race. This horserace focus leads them into four storylines: a candidate is “leading,” “trailing,” “gaining ground,” or “losing ground.” Of the four storylines, the most predictably positive one is that of the “gaining ground” candidate, particularly when that candidate is emerging from the back of the pack. It’s a story of growing momentum, rising poll numbers, and ever larger crowds. The storyline invariably includes negative elements, typically around the tactics that the candidate is employing in the surge to the top. But the overall media portrayal of a “gaining ground” candidate is a positive one.
Still. For those of you who screamed when I wrote that the media bore no culpability in Trump's rise, you had it right. I'll try to do better next time.