The me­dia did not cre­ate the Trump phe­nom­e­non

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eugene Robin­son

— One of the more ab­surd things be­ing said about the Don­ald Trump phe­nom­e­non is that the me­dia cre­ated it. For the record, we didn’t.

First of all, there is no “we.” The news me­dia op­er­ate in what should be ev­ery con­ser­va­tive ide­o­logue’s dream en­vi­ron­ment: an un­fet­tered free mar­ket. Out­lets com­pete ev­ery day — ac­tu­ally, in the In­ter­net age, ev­ery hour — to pro­vide con­sumers with in­for­ma­tion they need and want. Ev­ery edi­tor and news di­rec­tor strives to beat the com­pe­ti­tion, and the fact is that au­di­ences have de­cided they need and want to know about Trump.

No one un­der­stands this bet­ter than Trump him­self. To un­der­state by miles, he knows how to draw at­ten­tion to him­self — the late-night Twit­ter rants, the fire-breath­ing ral­lies, the gold-plated jet, the ridicu­lous hair. Af­ter decades in the pub­lic eye, he had more than 90 per­cent name recog­ni­tion when he be­gan his cam­paign. So it was no sur­prise that hordes of me­dia flocked to Trump Tower last June 16 and watched him de­scend the shiny es­ca­la­tor for his kick­off an­nounce­ment. Who doesn’t love a good sideshow?

But any car­ni­val barker can draw a crowd. Trump would have been sent home to his Fifth Av­enue pent­house long ago if a sub­stan­tial part of the Repub­li­can Party base didn’t agree with what he is say­ing. If there is any sort of col­lec­tive me­dia fail­ure, it’s not in pay­ing too much at­ten­tion to Trump but too lit­tle to his mes­sage.

Were the morn­ing news shows wrong to let Trump call in so of­ten? Be­fore you say of course it was, think of the im­pli­ca­tions. Do those pro­grams have an obli­ga­tion to treat ev­ery can­di­date the same? If so, con­tenders such as Martin O’Mal­ley and Jim Gil­more should have got­ten as much cov­er­age and air­time as, say, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Ted Cruz.

Were the ca­ble net­works wrong to carry live cov­er­age of so many Trump ral­lies? Re­call that the events them­selves were news­wor­thy be­cause of the ex­tra­or­di­nary size of the crowds. I could buy the ar­gu­ment that the other can­di­date who drew un­usu­ally big crowds, Bernie San­ders, per­haps should have got­ten more cov­er­age, but not that Trump should have got­ten less.

The “me­dia cre­ated Trump” sto­ry­line ig­nores the fact that the “main­stream” me­dia are about as pop­u­lar among the Repub­li­can base as the Zika virus. And the one ex­cep­tion,


Fox News, has been tougher on Trump than other out­lets, not more ac­com­mo­dat­ing. Chris Wal­lace, the host of “Fox News Sun­day,” has long re­fused to let Trump call in. And an­chor Megyn Kelly, with her sharp ques­tion­ing and com­men­tary, seems to have driven the blowhard bil­lion­aire up the wall.

It is true that Trump de­liv­ers huge tele­vi­sion rat­ings and lots of web­site clicks. But that’s ir­rel­e­vant. News or­ga­ni­za­tions have to cover the lead­ing can­di­dates, even if they’re dull as dish­wa­ter.

The news me­dia, it seems to me, are guilty only of re­port­ing the news — which is that a can­di­date who has never held elec­tive of­fice, and who dis­plays nei­ther the base of knowl­edge nor the tem­per­a­ment nec­es­sary to serve as pres­i­dent, is lead­ing all com­ers for the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion. Com­men­ta­tors should spend less time flat­ter­ing them­selves that the news me­dia have the power to make such a thing hap­pen — and more time try­ing to un­der­stand why Trump is suc­ceed­ing.

Early in his cam­paign, Trump staked out ex­treme po­si­tions on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion: De­port the 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented mi­grants al­ready in the coun­try, and build a “big, beau­ti­ful wall” along the Mex­ico bor­der. Ridicu­lous, yes, but he got peo­ple’s at­ten­tion.

He fol­lowed up, af­ter the San Bernardino ter­ror at­tack, with a call to ban all for­eign Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the coun­try. It is an­other crazy idea — im­pos­si­ble to im­ple­ment, and coun­ter­pro­duc­tive if at­tempted — but it res­onated with millions of Amer­i­cans who un­for­tu­nately view Is­lam with fear and loathing.

Trump rails against free trade agree­ments whose ef­fect, in his view, has been to elim­i­nate millions of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs. He pledges to re­duce the cost and scope of U.S. in­volve­ment overseas. He de­nounces other politi­cians as lack­eys who dance to the tune of rich and pow­er­ful cam­paign donors. And he plays on the anx­i­eties and prej­u­dices of white vot­ers un­nerved by de­mo­graphic change in a na­tion that will soon have no racial ma­jor­ity.

With apolo­gies to Marshall McLuhan, in this case the me­dia are merely the mes­sen­ger, not the mes­sage. Blam­ing our­selves for Trump’s rise is just an­other way to ig­nore the vot­ers who have made him the fa­vorite for the GOP nom­i­na­tion.

Eugene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­

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