Funt: Media 'R' Trump

Peter Funt
Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate
Peter Funt

Is the media to blame for Donald Trump?

With each of his victories and headline grabbing public events the question is asked anew. The answer is complicated because the media is more than journalism. Trump is a product of the entertainment and marketing sides, and he's enabled by the social media sector.

Journalistically, Trump was challenged early and often — from the first debate when Fox's Megyn Kelly confronted him with his sexist attacks on women ("pigs," "slobs," etc.), to the event a few weeks ago in which her colleague Chris Wallace produced statistics showing that Trump's budget plans are bogus.

But gradually, as Trump's slick self-promotion prevailed, thirst for ratings trumped, if you will, the quest for news.

Leslie Moonves, the CBS chief, called the presidential campaign a "circus" and yet, referring to viewership and ad sales, he conceded: "It's a terrible thing to say, but bring it on Donald, keep going."

Indeed, the ad-driven circus was in full view the night of Trump's victories in Michigan and Mississippi. Multiple networks stayed glued to the candidate's faux presidential stage set at his golf club in Florida for nearly a full prime-time hour as Trump pitched his wine, steaks, bottled water, magazine and various other products. It was more suited to QVC than CNN, and largely without political relevance.

Imagine the pressure on those calling the shots in TV control rooms. One voice says, "This isn't news, we've got to cut away." Another chimes in, "If we do, most of our audience will switch channels." MSNBC even tape-delayed Hillary Clinton's speech to avoid missing a minute of the Trump show.

The most vexing question for news outlets has always been: Do we give viewers what they ought to see or what they want to see? Increasingly, in an era of multiple channels and media alternatives, the scales are tipped in favor of sensational, tabloid choices.

On the morning of Feb. 27, Trump's jet landed in Bentonville, Arkansas, to media coverage usually reserved for select heads of state. MSNBC sat on a shot of the tarmac for many painful minutes with the on-screen graphic alert: "Any minute Trump to speak." CNN and Fox News Channel did the same. They showed the jet circling, taxiing and eventually rolling to a stop so that Trump could deplane for a routine speech, covered in its entirety.

Donald Trump is quite right when he boasts that every time he appears on TV the ratings go up. But few in media concede that every time the ratings rise so do Trump's popularity numbers. The synergy is clear.

The night of March 11 was classic. Trump arranged a rally in Chicago that, because of its location, was certain to draw many protesters. He waited until the crowd was in place and at a fevered pitch, and then canceled. All three cable-TV news outlets covered it, analyzed it, replayed it for hours — and all three took on-air calls from Trump himself, enabling him to guide viewers through this splendid piece of marketing.

Coverage of Donald Trump has become an extension of his TV show "The Apprentice." As noted by several observers, the line "Get 'em outta here" has replaced the signature "You're Fired" as Trump's new reality catch phrase.

To his fans he is not so much a candidate as he is a character. That helps explain why most attacks on the heroic Trump character actually help him rather than hurt.

Trump is also the first candidate to successfully utilize Twitter, Instagram and other social vehicles for personal attacks — and when he strikes, conventional media simply cannot resist relaying the messages to millions more eyeballs.

After his big wins in Florida and Illinois Trump decided not to speak with reporters as he had promised. The next morning he announced he'll skip Monday's GOP debate on Fox because answering questions no longer fits his theatrical needs.

Trump is now the puppeteer. Media are only props in the show.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.