Ever since Donald Trump took a clear lead in the Republican presidential nomination race some months ago, a debate has been occurring over the extent to which the news media aided his rise. At one level, this question is purely analytical, engaging a topic that has long interested political scientists: what are the main sources of influence on the political behavior of citizens, and to what degree can exposure to new information via media exposure pull voters away from their pre-existing political orientations? The non-traditional nature of the Trump candidacy—and the unique manner in which it has been covered by the press—provides a particularly valuable case study with which to explore this relationship in a systematic fashion.
But few people, whether academics or not, find it easy to suspend normative judgment where Trump is concerned. As a result, suggestions that the media may well have played a role, even if unintentionally, in assisting Trump's campaign can easily take on the form of angry indictments of the journalistic profession—or are at least interpreted as such by defensive newspeople. In response to perceived accusations of abetting a candidate who is widely disdained and feared among well-educated metropolitans of the political left, right, and center alike, a pundit class that in other contexts openly acknowledges and even overstates the capacity of media coverage to influence electoral outcomes—how often have we been told by talking heads that "winning the news cycle" is the key to winning the election?—has pushed back repeatedly against the notion that it bears any responsibility for Trump's success in gaining the Republican nomination and advancing closer to the presidency.
A few days ago, John Sides and Kalev Leetaru published a detailed analysis that contains an extensive empirical examination of the media's role in boosting Trump. Sides and Leetaru present a variety of data, but their central point is simple: Trump received a disproportionate share of media attention during the Republican primaries, the coverage devoted to Trump was not unusually negative in tone compared to other candidates, and Trump's standing among Republican primary voters over time closely reflected the contemporaneous volume of publicity that his candidacy was generating in the press.
Sides and Leetaru mostly focus on analyzing news coverage since Trump announced his candidacy last summer, though they note that Trump's 30-year status as a national figure is itself a product of substantial media attention. "Celebrities," they observe, "including Trump, are created in part by their own efforts and in part by news outlets’ willingness to write about them."
If anything, I think Sides and Leetaru may understate the media's role in fueling Trump's political ambitions. They refer to Trump's career as a tabloid personality and reality TV star prior to his presidential campaign, comparing him to the Kardashians in his demonstrated success at creating a symbiotic relationship with news outlets who provided him with the publicity he sought.
But Kim Kardashian, for all her fame and gifts, would have a hard time getting millions of voters to view her as a good potential president. For decades, Trump has benefited from media coverage that not only has made him a household name, but has also portrayed him as having skills that would be generally considered assets in the world of politics. Trump managed to build a national reputation as an exceptionally shrewd businessman and negotiator through popular media accounts, and his years of appearances on morning shows, newsmagazines, and interview programs like Larry King Live often invited him to comment on current events under the assumption that his business success naturally gave him valuable insight on the political topics of the day.
The volume and generally deferential character of this media attention encouraged Trump to flirt with a political career as early as the late 1990s. His later phase as an outspoken critic of Barack Obama was similarly given substantial amplification by national media outlets; Trump made regular appearances on Fox News Channel (including a weekly "Monday Mornings with Trump" feature on Fox and Friends) and CNBC during much of Obama's presidency, treated once again as a captain of industry who could boast substantial expertise on the subject of politics.
Now that Trump is a viable candidate for president of the United States, political journalists have published and broadcast a number of more critical stories about his past and present career. Today, Trump is frequently portrayed as someone with severely limited knowledge of public affairs; as a candidate who intentionally skews the truth, appeals to popular prejudices, and incites violence among his supporters; and even as a business mogul who is much less successful, wealthy, and ethical than he claims. Members of the press who reject the "Trump as media creation" argument often point out that Trump is the most unpopular major-party nominee in the history of public opinion polling, suggesting that the coverage Trump has received has damaged rather than boosted him in the eyes of the electorate.
To be sure, it is likely that Trump will face mostly negative press coverage from now until November that will, if anything, make it more difficult for him to win the presidency. But critics both inside and outside the news media who view Trump as self-evidently unqualified for national office should examine the basis upon which millions of Republican primary voters formed the opposite impression. Donald Trump did not descend into the American electoral arena on an escalator from oblivion; the media presented him to us as a political authority for many years before they began to decide that maybe he was just an authoritarian.