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.