WASHINGTON – 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’s email address is email@example.com.