In March 2016, a media executive put in a phone call to Michael Cohen, attorney to then-Republican primary candidate Donald Trump. The media executive remarks that he is “fond” of Trump, whom he calls “the boss.”
“I want to do a weekly show with him and all that stuff,” the executive continues. “He’s never lost a debate. And you know what? He’s good at this.” The executive offers Trump advice on debating before the call ends.
You might expect the media executive in this call to be one of the right-wing higher-ups at Fox News, the sort who might leap at the chance to do a weekly show with Trump. But, in fact, the media executive was Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN. The president of CNN praised Trump and offered him not only advice, but a weekly show.
While the Zucker call may seem odd at first listen, it is hardly breaking news. Rather, it is a small part of an ongoing story. During the 2016 election, media outlets ostensibly across the political spectrum behaved favorably to Donald Trump and his campaign. Their excessive coverage was instrumental in Trump’s dark-horse victory.
There are many narratives concerning Trump’s improbable victory in the Republican primary and general election. Pundits on the right argue that Trump spoke to the frustrations of forgotten blue-collar voters, while pundits on the left correctly point out Trump’s knack for exploiting racial divisions. However, neither explanation is completely sufficient. Trump debuted to less-than-stellar poll numbers—even after his rise to the top of the field, he continued to be one of the least popular presidential candidates in history. He did not win a single primary with more than 50 percent of the vote until April 2016, and won the nomination with an unimpressive 44.9 percent of the vote.
The data suggests, then, that Trump was neither a populist conqueror nor a master manipulator: He was an insubstantial candidate with a message only suited to a vocal minority of the electorate.
Yet to the corporate media, the insubstantial candidate may as well have been president already. By March 2016, Trump had already attained a stunning $2 billion in free media coverage—more than six times that of Ted Cruz, his closest primary rival, and nearly twice that of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders combined. This coverage blitz began even when he trailed many primary opponents. In total, Trump received $5 billion in free media—billions more than the first woman to receive a major party’s presidential nomination.
The media’s fascination with Donald Trump did not stem from his fitness for office (arguably his greatest contribution to American politics had been founding the racist birther movement) or his policy prescriptions (a costly border wall and bizarre ban on Muslim immigration). They simply enjoyed that he was louder, meaner and pettier than his opponents.
Every petty tweet was guaranteed a literary analysis; pundits speculated hungrily as to what Trump might nickname his next opponent; prestigious networks aired Trump’s empty podiums (Breaking News: Standing By For Trump) in lieu of his opponents’ actual speeches. Tellingly, the Trump campaign spent several times less on ads than any of his serious primary or general election rivals. They did not need ads when they could trust CNN or Fox to obediently sell Trump to the nation anyway.
One might argue that since coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly negative, the media actually intended to aid Clinton. This is a common misconception. In fact, in line with elections dating all the way back to 1988, both candidates received roughly equal negative coverage. While some outlets might lean left or right, all outlets have a bias towards negative, outrageous stories that keep readers clicking. The media thus created a false moral equivalency between the two candidates. Clinton was a traitorous, untrustworthy criminal; Trump was a seditious, lying lawbreaker.
Never mind substantial policy discussion or thoughtful examination of the candidates’ backgrounds: The largest difference between the two candidates was that one’s message received $5 billion in free circulation. Is it any surprise, then, that Trump managed to scrape together a devoted enough base to win the election?
It is (thankfully) no longer the 2016 election, and Trump’s grip on the press may finally loosen as he prepares for post-presidential life. But the corporate media remains a dangerously flawed institution. In all likelihood, they will opt to continue pushing the stories that sell the best—stories of anger, unrest and demagoguery. Already, conspiracy theorist representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert attract cascades of coverage. QAnon, their literature of choice, and far-right fringe groups such as the Proud Boys have a veritable penthouse apartment in the headlines. If the corporate media do not zoom their cameras out, and if we are not mindful of the sources we browse, the future may belong to whoever can be the Trumpiest—and 2016 may have only been a wake-up call.