A new Harvard University study highlighted how the media’s excessively positive coverage of Donald Trump during the primaries gave the candidate the platform he needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination.
The study found that while media usually determined the highest polling candidate as the most newsworthy, this was not the case with Trump. He was neither leading in fundraising nor in the polls when his exaggerated coverage began. Additionally, the study found that though he eventually rose in the polls to warrant such coverage, “he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media” (emphasis added):
So what explains the news media’s early fascination with Trump? The answer is that journalists were behaving in their normal way. Although journalists play a political brokering role in presidential primaries, their decisions are driven by news values rather than political values. Journalists are attracted to the new, the unusual, the sensational—the type of story material that will catch and hold an audience’s attention. Trump fit that need as no other candidate in recent memory. Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee. Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch.
Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump’s first audience. Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories. He didn’t have any other option. He had no constituency base and no claim to presidential credentials. If Trump had possessed them, his strategy could have been political suicide, which is what the press predicted as they showcased his tirades. Trump couldn’t compete with the likes of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush on the basis of his political standing or following. The politics of outrage was his edge, and the press became his dependable if unwitting ally.
In 2015, after announcing his bid for president in June, the Trump campaign received an unprecedented amount of coverage from network nightly news broadcasts. According to television news analyst Andrew Tyndall, though Trump announced his candidacy in mid 2015, he was only surpassed by weather reports in total airtime. Fox News gave Trump almost $30 million in free airtime in 2015, resulting in nearly 24 hours worth of exposure.
The Harvard study pointed out “Trump’s coverage was positive in tone,” with the press using statements and interviews with Trump supporters that legitimized his comments. . The media also lauded Trump as “presidential” after winning the New York primary despite his repeated racist and sexists statements.
After reading the Harvard University study, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza acknowledged the media’s obsession with and overtly positive coverage of Trump contributed to his rise (emphasis added):
I think it's important to always take stock of how we are doing in terms of our coverage and what we did wrong and what we could do better. And I think that self-examination includes, when necessary, acknowledging when an argument you had made is no longer backed up by evidence. It's hard for me to look at the Shorenstein Center study and conclude anything other than that the media played a larger role in the rise of Trump than I previously believed.
Still. For those of you who screamed when I wrote that the media bore no culpability in Trump's rise, you had it right. I'll try to do better next time.