H

ow did the Republican Party reach this pass? What led the GOP to nominate to the highest office in the land an intemperate political neophyte who is almost certain to lose? Could the election have gone differently if Republicans had chosen another candidate?

Important questions. No doubt you already have read plenty of answers to them. Culprits have been identified, causes traced, theories proffered. There are few innocent parties. But let us not forget, as we read the postmortems and autopsies and think pieces, that Donald Trump is a creation of the American media and entertainment industry.

For decades, that industry publicized him, coddled him, mocked him, profited from him. It built him up. Allowed him to spread the myth of Trump, of the strong, successful, decisive, take-no-prisoners business tycoon. And then, once Trump approached the Oval Office, once he was the sole obstacle between Hillary Clinton and the White House, these same networks and outlets turned on him. Abandoned him. Revealed to the world what they had known about Trump all along. It wasn’t Trump who changed over the course of this election. It was the media.

This is not my opinion. Thomas E. Patterson, a professor at Harvard, is an expert on media and politics. He has been analyzing coverage of the 2016 primary and general election. In a series of reports, he has revealed how the media have shaped the flow of the race through their preference for news values over political values—love of sensation, of conflict, of novelty, of character and story. His conclusion: “Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee.”

Yes, ultimately the political parties themselves are responsible for the individuals they nominate. What Patterson’s research tells us, however, is that the parties do not choose these nominees in a vacuum. They operate within a context. A context generated by media.

Patterson says poll numbers and fundraising typically determine the amount of coverage a candidate receives before the primaries begin. Trump is the exception: “When his news coverage began to shoot up, he was not high in the trial-heat polls and had raised almost no money.”

What Trump had was a reputation based on his books, television programs, talk-show appearances, apparel, and properties. He also had a talent for delivering ratings and buzz. He knew when to play to type and when not, when to escalate his attacks and when to switch topics. Gross, brash, polarizing, unpredictable, he was above all interesting.

It was only after Donald Trump won the GOP nomination that the media saw fit to go after his tax returns, his foundation, his tenuous grasp of facts, and his connections to Russia.

Patterson examined Fox, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, CBS, NBC, the Washington Post, and the New York Times during 2015. Not only did Trump dominate coverage—“across all the outlets, Trump’s coverage was roughly 2-to-1 favorable.” Why? Because coverage of Trump during this period focused on poll numbers and campaign process rather than public policy and character. The details of Trump’s positions—there are no details—were less important than the fact that he was “gaining ground” and overtaking his rivals in the horse race.

What counted were the crowds, the polls, and the enthusiasm. A majority of Trump coverage was about exactly these topics. Just 12 percent was devoted to his issues and ideology. A piddling 6 percent was about his personal qualities, such as they are. As Republican voters learned of how well Trump was doing, they became more open to supporting him. The storyline of the “Trump phenomenon” was more than captivating. It was self-fulfilling.

The story continued as the primary season began. Patterson found that, between January 1 and June 7, 2016, the Republicans received two-thirds of total coverage. The bulk of this coverage went to Trump: “There was not a single week when Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or John Kasich topped Trump’s level of coverage.” Indeed, Trump’s media advantage was so overwhelming that he earned more headlines than either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders even after he was the only Republican left.

One analytics firm pegs the value of Trump’s free media during the primary at more than $2 billion. The messages broadcast about Trump continued to be positive as electoral victories for the most part crowded out stories of his extremism and ill temper. “Trump’s coverage during the primary period was almost evenly balanced,” writes Patterson, “with positive statements about his candidacy (49 percent) nearly equal to negative ones (51 percent).” Contrast those numbers with Rubio’s, whose coverage was 56 percent negative and 44 percent positive.

Then the turn happened. By May 2016, Trump was unopposed. “Victories in the absence of competitors are less newsworthy,” Patterson says, “opening up news time and space for other subjects.” That was a problem. Coverage of Trump soured: “Over the final five weeks of the primary season, 61 percent of news statements about Trump were negative and only 39 percent were positive.”

The media obsession with celebrity and the horse race, along with its titillation at a Republican who embodied the worst stereotypes of his party, helped Donald Trump win the GOP nomination. It was only after he got his prize that the media saw fit to go after his tax returns, his phony university, his foundation, his tenuous grasp of facts, and his connections to Russia. By the end of the Republican convention, negative Trump stories outnumbered positive ones by three to one.

Much of this coverage was self-inflicted and well deserved. Presidential nominees should be scrutinized. The things Donald Trump has said and done throw into question his suitability for any office, much less the presidency of the United States. But one cannot help wondering what the outcome of the Republican primary might have been if the media had made an issue of Trump’s personality and history at any point before he defeated his internal opposition.

The billions in free media during the primary amounted to positive advertising for Trump. When the general election began, however, that same free media became the most expensive negative advertisement of all time. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was closing the attention deficit. “Clinton’s post-convention bounce brought her media coverage even with Trump’s,” reported mediaQuant, “breaking the $500 million mark for monthly earned media value.” By this point, her coverage, needless to say, had turned positive.

“Trump has freed journalists from the handcuffs of false equivalence,” CNN’s Brian Stelter told Ezra Klein. But this unshackling occurred only at the most convenient moment for the candidate the media overwhelmingly supports. Funny it did not happen during the 30 years when the New York–based media slapped Trump on newspaper and magazine covers, invited him to Stern and Letterman and Today, paid him millions to burnish his celebrity on reality television, reveled in his vulgarity and standoffishness, snickered at him behind the scenes even as audiences across the country fell for his con game. These supposedly reputable media institutions turned Donald Trump into a star long before Roger Ailes had him on Fox News Channel. And they, too, deserve some of the blame.

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