On Wednesday, the Washington Post's media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, declared that Donald Trump "has benefited from oodles...of free exposure in the media." Another Post columnist, Dana Milbank, proposed that the media impose a Trump blackout in retaliation for the candidate's attacks on the press. A political scientist's report, published this week by Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, asserted, "Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee.... Journalists fueled his launch."
All this commentary stems from a common assumption: that media attention is a positive good that journalists bestow. It follows that journalists should only pay attention to things we deem worthy. Similarly, critics often take issue with profiles of subjects they do not like, or the publicizing of attention-seeking evildoers. By publicizing the odious, this argument goes, reporters promote it.
Taken to its logical conclusion, this is a very dangerous idea. Many members of the public already suspect that journalists constitute a behind-the-scenes cabal that collaborates to determine which topics get covered and which do not. (If this is true, I've never been invited to the meetings. I make my own decisions about what stories I think are interesting or significant.) Proposing that the press overtly declare itself an interested party in a presidential election, and deliberately put its collective thumb on the political scale, is antithetical to the notion of a free market of ideas and the final authority of voters in a democracy. They are the ones who decide—not the media. It is supremely arrogant to declare otherwise.
The arguments that blame the media for Trump fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. So much has Trump "benefited" from media exposure, as Sullivan blithely asserts, that he now is viewed negatively by 70 percent of voters, and would lose to Hillary Clinton by 12 points if the general election were held today. Milbank once proposed a similar boycott of Sarah Palin, another onetime subject of saturation coverage whose critics wished she would just go away. But the forces that made Palin compelling to her fans and repugnant to her critics—a politics of resentment that transcended conventional ideology—were deeply rooted in the American psyche and would flare up again when Trump came along. If you ignored her instead of trying to understand her, you probably missed that. (Milbank certainly did.)
The Shorenstein report, which assessed coverage by three networks and five newspapers over the course of 2015, is remarkable for its unsubstantiated assertions. Nowhere in the report does its author, Thomas E. Patterson, even attempt to prove that media coverage correlates with candidate standing. He begins by talking about the "invisible primary," the period of an election when donors and insiders evaluate the candidates before voters begin to tune in. "Of all the indicators of success in the invisible primary, media exposure is arguably the most important," Patterson writes. "Media exposure is essential if a candidate is to rise in the polls. Absent a high poll standing, or upward momentum, it’s difficult for a candidate to raise money, win endorsements, or even secure a spot in the pre-primary debates." The word "arguably" is a good tip-off here: It signifies an absence of evidence. There are no footnotes or other references for this string of assertions, simply the author's contention that they are true.
Patterson goes on to cite data that finds that Trump enjoyed more "positive or neutral" news coverage than the other Republican primary candidates, and that the volume and tenor of early coverage were disproportionate to voters' interest in Trump's candidacy. But when you look at the report's evidence, the preponderance of this coverage turns out to be reporting on the fact that Trump was gaining in the polls and attracting large crowds to his events. The press is the effect here, not the cause: The media were noting—often to their collective surprise—that more and more Republican primary voters were becoming receptive to Trump's message. Should they instead have ignored or downplayed this development? Journalists shouldn't blindly follow polls, but we should—constantly!—attempt to understand what sentiments are percolating in the electorate.
It's often said that there's no such thing as bad publicity. This is one of those sayings (like "there are no second acts in American lives") that's catchy because it's totally false. If all attention were positive, politicians wouldn’t spend millions on attack ads. Ask anyone who's endured a firestorm of public controversy how good the publicity was.
More to the point, journalists don’t write their stories to advance or hinder the candidacies of particular politicians. We should be focused on telling the truth.