Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

For nine months, Republican leaders refused to take on Donald Trump when it would have done some good. Now that it may be too late, they’re blaming their own failures on the media.

“The media’s pumping him up,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained. The Republican presidential candidate alleged that there’s a “weird bias here in the media rooting for Donald Trump because they know he’s the easiest Republican to beat.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) agrees that the media have given Trump “hundreds of millions of dollars of free advertising,” a “massive in-kind contribution” that “helped create this phenomenon.” He even alleges that media outlets are holding exposés on Trump until he secures the nomination.

Complaining about the media is an easy applause line for conservatives, and the news business no doubt deserves some blame for Trump’s rise. But if Cruz, Rubio and other GOP leaders are looking for the real culprits, they should start with themselves.

Upset about the volume of coverage Trump has received? You might as well complain about the weather. News outlets (and their customers) love conflict: If it bleeds, it leads. If GOP rivals had taken on Trump early in the race, they would have received coverage, too. But they ignored him, hoping he would disappear, and so Trump had the cameras to himself for his outrages du jour.

Coverage volume, meanwhile, is not necessarily a measure of success. Trump got 93 percent of coverage in the past 30 days, according to the LexisNexis Presidential Campaign Tracker. But on the Democratic side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) got a virtually identical 92 percent.

Also, it’s worth noting that all the issues Cruz and Rubio now bring up — bankruptcies, Trump University, his bigoted remarks, his autocratic instincts — were covered by the press long ago. But Trump’s rivals declined to attack him.

Recall the very first debate, when Fox News’s Megyn Kelly led off with a question noting that Trump has called women “fat pigs,” “dogs,” “slobs” and “disgusting animals.” Trump’s rivals were at most mildly critical of his misogyny.

Or think back to another early debate, when CNBC’s John Harwood opened by challenging Trump’s preposterous promises and asking: “Is this a comic-book version of a presidential campaign?” Trump’s rivals joined him in denouncing the moderators for being too tough.

Looking back through my own coverage of Trump, I see a long list of unanswered pleas for the other GOP candidates to take on Trump. On Aug. 27, for example, I lamented the lack of “backbone” and the “virtual silence” of others in the field in reaction to Trump’s offenses. On Sept. 16, I pleaded for other GOP candidates to respond “quickly and consistently” to Trump’s bullying, and four days later I argued that if his rivals “take him on consistently and jointly . . . Trump’s moment will end.”

But they didn’t. By Nov. 24, I despaired that “Trump gets ever more base in his bigotry — and yet, with few and intermittent exceptions, rival candidates, party leaders and GOP lawmakers decline to call him out. So he continues to rise.”

Certainly, there’s a case to be made that the media — namely, Fox News — created Trump as a political figure before his candidacy. Beginning in 2011, Trump had a weekly segment on Fox’s morning show. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters calculates that Trump was on Fox’s evening and prime-time programs and Fox News Sunday 48 times between January 2013 and April 2015. But then Fox News, like Republican officials and other conservative opinion leaders, lost control of the monster they created.

There’s no question Trump’s run has been good for ratings and readership. But while this creates an incentive to cover Trump, it hasn’t translated to favorable coverage. The LexisNexis tracker finds that 7 percent of the coverage of Republicans has been negative over the past 30 days, 11 percent positive and the rest neutral — virtually identical to the proportions for Democrats.

The bigger problem among journalists covering Trump is the moral neutrality in the reporting. News organizations apply to him the same type of horse-race reporting that they do to conventional candidates: driven by polls, defining who’s up and who’s down, who won the news cycle and who lost. Trump’s moves are often described as “brilliant.” But while it may be tactically brilliant of him to, say, propose a ban on Muslims entering the United States, it’s also deplorable. News organizations fear making such judgments would compromise their impartiality.

But that’s a small flaw compared with the chronic unwillingness of Republican leaders, and particularly Trump’s rivals, to take him on. Had they done so earlier, journalists would have followed their cues, and coverage would have been different. To blame the news media now for the GOP leaders’ own failings compounds their cowardice.

Twitter: @Milbank

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