The rich and famous wield far more political influence than the average American. Take Donald Trump. The First Amendment guarantees him freedom of speech. So he cannot be stopped from putting his name in large letters at the tops of skyscrapers, using his fame to attract an audience and talk to them about politics, or making large donations to political advertising campaigns of his choosing. He raises his megaphone most frequently in presidential election cycles. In doing so, he gets the message of his choice out to millions of his fellow citizens.
In theory, the news media counterbalances the political speech of the rich and famous. During the earliest stages of presidential election cycles, political journalists could spend time reporting on political speech that the audience wouldn't otherwise come across due to the speaker's lack of fame or personal fortune. Readers could be exposed to ideas and people based on other factors, like their experience, the quality of their ideas, or the likelihood that they'll wield power. But at times the political press simply amplifies the advantages of wealth and notoriety.
Them that has, gets.
On Saturday, the Iowa Freedom Summit featured 24 speakers. Many wield significant political power. One of them is a publicity-hound billionaire and reality TV host who spent the last presidential election cycle feigning an electoral bid. But based on news coverage of the event, you'd think Donald Trump was the most consequential speaker and that his words deserved to be disseminated widely.
News organizations that reported on Trump's speech include The Christian Science Monitor, Politico, CBS News, The Blaze, The Dallas Morning News, The Independent, Business Insider, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Times, USA Today, ABC News, The New York Daily News, Fox News, The Bangkok Post, The Hill, Breitbart News, Newsmax, Bloomberg (which also ran a followup article), The Des Moines Register, The Chicago Sun-Times, Gawker, and National Review Online.
The combined worth of those stories is zero.
There is no reason to think that this man will run for president; if he did, this speech would not much affect the campaign; the thoughts expressed are neither insightful nor interesting; there's no evidence that politicians criticized by Trump suffer from it or that politicians or policies that he supports benefit. So what gives? If dozens of writers and editors decided that reporting focused on Trump was the best use of their time, that would be a damning indictment of the political press. But one suspects that most of these writers and editors don't actually believe that their time was well spent, which suggests an even bigger problem.
Take the CBS News contribution to this towering display of madness. The byline belongs to Jake Miller, writing under the headline, "Teasing a 2016 bid, Donald Trump slams Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush." The article begins with a questionable claim: "Once again, billionaire businessman Donald Trump is flirting with a run at the White House." Isn't it more likely that he is once again pretending to flirt with a run in order to fuel his celebrity? What follows are 13 paragraphs that treat Trump's words seriously, and include the following credulous characterization: "Trump offered an ambitious preview of his prospective presidential agenda."
Only in paragraph 14 do we learn what the CBS News reporter really thinks of this spectacle: "Veteran political watchers have heard this all before from Trump," he observes, "and there's ample reason to be skeptical that he would actually dive into the chaos of the Republican nominating process. But several other potential candidates who are more likely to jump into the fray also spoke on Saturday."
There's only enough room left for heavily truncated quotes from two of them.
It's hard not to see, between the lines of the article, something like a coded message in a hostage's letter. Readers! I know that Donald Trump won't run for president, and that framing this article around his speech is indefensible as a matter of substance. But I'm not making the decisions here. Try not to think badly of me!
Let's spare future reporters this indignity.
If Trump takes the steps necessary to qualify on the ballot in even a single significant primary state, the political press should cover him as a candidate. His wealth and fame would perhaps allow him to affect an election as a spoiler. Barring that, there are so many people more worthy of political coverage than Trump that a blanket ban on stories about him would serve major news organizations better than the present approach, which I defy any of them to persuasively defend.
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