Trump's Rise and the Media's Failure to Dig, Inform

Trump's Rise and the Media's Failure to Dig, Inform
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Now that Donald Trump has emerged as the man to beat for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, incredulous political scientists, journalists, pundits and a bevy of self-styled political elitists are wringing their hands and asking, “How did this happen?”

Their answers focus on two easy conclusions:

--The news media mistakenly assumed that Trump was a joke and would soon either implode or get tired of running, so they didn’t properly vet him.

--Republican Party bosses failed to take Trump seriously and effectively exert their power and influence to stop him.

Although both answers have a kernel of truth to them, the explanations go deeper.

Take the first conclusion. It assumes that the media have the prime responsibility to vet the candidates. To be sure, it is one of the key roles the news media have played since 1972 when the parties were switching from allowing bosses in smoke-filled rooms to select the nominees to an all-primary system where rank-and-file voters have the most powerful voice.

But rather than examine Trump, and question his shortcomings, or just plain ignore him, the television news networks, dazzled by his celebrity, promoted him with a blizzard of free air time that boosted their ratings and thus their ad rates. It seems that Trump was everywhere on TV, spreading his message nearly unchecked.

Immediately after last Thursday’s GOP debate ended on CNN, for example, the host network gave Trump its first five minutes of air time to trumpet his version of post-debate analysis. CNN’s own analysts, along with Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, came later, after many watchers had gone to bed.

The print media are not blameless, either. They are more interested in the easy flashy stories of Trump’s latest Twitter epithet such as “Jeb Bush is a stiff,” than in doing the heavy lifting of examining Trump’s long record as a businessman. As media-savvy a candidate as we have seen, Trump is eager to oblige almost daily with a new attack, giving the conflict-addicted press a coveted fresh lead to fill their 24-hour news maw.

In their scramble for flash and dash, the news media mostly ignored the fact that Trump rarely offered detailed plans or solutions to the immigration and economic problems he highlighted in blunt and sometimes profane language. They brushed aside what once was a basic tenet of political reporting: Examine a candidate’s plans and analyze their soundness or feasibility.

Trump isn’t alone in winning cavalier media treatment of his plans. Most of the other candidates, Republican and Democrat, have not seen their proposals for tax reform, free college tuition, battling ISIS or revamping the health care system get much serious media scrutiny. In today’s media parlance, that stuff is boring. Trump -- and to a lesser degree Bernie Sanders -- is not.

Also largely missing from the daily mass of Trump coverage is in-depth analysis of who his supporters really are, why they are so angry with the political system and what it is they see in him that they find lacking in his opponents. Instead, the news media elites seem to dismiss Trump voters as poorly educated white homophobes, racists, bigots or religious zealots.

Need an example? Here’s one from a Dana Milbank column in Sunday’s Washington Post: “Have you completed third grade? If so, this may be why you are having trouble understanding the appeal of Donald Trump.”

And the wily Trump, well aware of the media barb that his supporters are poorly educated, played directly to it last Tuesday in his victory speech after the Nevada caucuses. “I love the poorly educated,” he declared to loud cheers.

What is it that political analysts and media elites don’t understand about the principle of “one person, one vote”? Do they prefer weighted voting based on education? If they were in closer touch with the voters they would be better able to explain the Trump phenomenon. They are not.

Turning to the notion that party leaders failed to exert their power and influence to stop Trump is somewhat flawed in that it assumes party leaders today are actually powerful. In this era where big-money donors are able to bypass official party leaders, put their millions into super PACs and back the candidate of their choice, it’s everybody for himself. Party leaders are little more than cheerleaders for the team on the field.

Few voters can name the Republican or Democratic National Committee chairmen, Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, respectively. How powerful are they? Very powerful in selecting dates and TV networks for their party’s presidential candidate debates; far less powerful in dictating the shape, tone and tenor of the race.

How could Priebus have stopped Trump? He didn’t even battle for Carly Fiorina to be included in the ABC News New Hampshire Republican debate when she was the only candidate left out, not to mention that she was the only woman in the GOP race.

In the days before the primary process took over candidate selection, party leaders sat down, examined the candidates’ backgrounds and rejected those who had flaws that made them unelectable. They did the vetting. They wanted their party to win. Now, the media, the primaries and super PACs do that for them. It is out of their hands.

So rather than wring hands over the emergence of Trump, or try to tear him down now that he has climbed so high, it’s time for the news media to their job of explaining who the candidates are, what they propose to do, how they propose to do it and how voters are responding. It sounds simple. Why do we make it so hard?

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University.

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