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Why Are We Letting the Media Pick our Leaders?

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While many pixels have been devoted to theories attempting to explain the unlikely and rapid rise of Donald Trump, one makes the most sense to me.

The media has covered Trump six times as much as his nearest Republican rival. MediaQuant, a company that quantifies media coverage, estimates in a New York Times article that if Trump’s coverage were TV commercials, it would be the equivalent of about $2 billion in ads. For perspective, John McCain spent about $400 million in ads in the entire 2008 campaign.

Ted Cruz comes in a distant second with $313 million.

On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton has received the equivalent of about $750 million in media coverage, more than twice that of Bernie Sanders, who had $321 million in media coverage. Sanders still had more than any Republican save Trump.

For the plurality of Americans who identify with neither political party, no third party candidate received enough coverage to register in the study.

You don’t have to be James Carville to know that the candidate who raises more money wins almost all the time. A 2008 study by the Center for Responsive Politics showed that the candidate for the House of Representatives that spent the most money won 93% of the time, and the highest-spending Senate candidate won 94% of the time.

For the plurality of Americans who identify with neither political party, no third party candidate received enough coverage to register in the study.
But it is not the accumulation of greenbacks in itself that brings a candidate over the finish line; it is spending the money on forms of voter contact like mail, field programs and television ads. The candidate that is able to get her message out to the most people the most times usually wins, and that is a function of money.

Among forms of voter contact, TV is king. When the Pew Research Center asked in a survey of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials their most trusted source of political news, eight of the top ten responses were television news sources.

So when TV news stations collectively cover one candidate six times more than his nearest rival, they have a massive influence on the electorate. TV coverage dwarfs even the much-feared super PAC spending. For all the outrage about the Citizens United ruling, the impact of super PACs is barely noticeable in 2016. All super PAC spending for and against all candidates combined in the 2016 Presidential election to date only amounts to around $262 million, about 14% of Donald Trump’s coverage.

Television news is the single most powerful force in driving voters’ choice of Presidential candidate, by a lot.

It is worth noting that media darlings and likely nominees Trump and Clinton have among the highest unfavorable ratings of any Presidential candidate in an election year since Gallup began keeping records in 1992. Trump is the worst at 60% unfavorable. Clinton fares only slightly better with 52%, the third highest unfavorable rating on record (George H.W. Bush in October of 1992 hit 57% for second place), proving the old adage that it doesn’t matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right.

The conspiracy theorists among us might say that the media is in the tank for Clinton, giving her twice the coverage of Sanders, despite being nearly her equal in the polls, and hyping Trump because he is the least electable Republican Clinton could face.

While anything is certainly possible in an election cycle like this one, I prefer to heed the advice of famed Watergate informant “Deep Throat” and follow the money. According to Advertising Age, CNN is making forty times its normal advertising rate during Republican debates. All the news networks are seeing record audiences during their presidential coverage.

Make no mistake, news is a huge business. News in America is a $65 billion industry. The global music industry is only $50 billion. And it is profitable. Forbes estimates CNN’s EBITDA margin (a financial measure similar to profit margin) at 40%. Exxon Mobil, frequently maligned for excess profits, has an EBITDA margin of about 15%. Goldman Sachs, the poster child for anti-Wall Street protesters, has an EBITDA margin of about 21%.

Concern about the disproportionate power of the news media is not a recent phenomenon. Rep. Luther Johnson (D-TX) was prescient nearly ninety years ago when he said in the debate surrounding the Radio Act of 1927:

“American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations, for publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a republic. And when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one person, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership or dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act. Section 315 of the act was called the equal time provision, which required stations to make available to all candidates the amount of advertising sold or broadcast time given to any one candidate.

In 1959, Congress amended the act to create four exemptions. Candidates who were given airtime a) within a documentary, b) during a bona fide news interview, c) as part of a scheduled newscast or d) during an on-the-spot news event were not subject to the equal time rule. Not coincidentally, this favored the incumbents who created the law, who could more easily garner appearances on newscasts and create their own on-the-spot news much easier than their opponents. It also effectively took the teeth out of the equal time provision.

Further complicating the matter is the advent of 24-hour cable news. Everything on CNN, MSNBC or Fox News is part of a scheduled newscast.

At one time, we as a country might have been less concerned about the power of the news media in choosing candidates. The media was once seen as a “watch dog,” that held public interest before profits. And while we knew the media to be influential, we have never been able to quantify their influence until today.

Given the quantifiable bias, and that, for the first time in American history, both the nominees generated by the media are disliked by a majority of the electorate, is it time to revisit the equal time provision?

Another lens through which to look at this problem is that of campaign finance. Americans can make monetary and in-kind donations to political campaigns up to $2700 per candidate per election. An example of an in-kind donation would be paying for catering at a fundraising event, printing flyers to advertise a rally or donating an old office copier to a campaign.

Corporations cannot make political donations, either monetary or in-kind. If Xerox were to want to make an in-kind donation of one of its products, an office copier, to John Kasich’s campaign, the corporation would be prohibited from doing so under Federal Election Commission rules. If United Airlines wanted to provide Bernie Sanders free flights to his campaign events, this would also be illegal.

CNN is a corporation providing what looks a lot like an in-kind donation of its product, news coverage, to Presidential campaigns. What is it about news corporations that make them exempt from federal election laws?

Much has been written about a potential brokered convention for the Republicans, the unfairness of the super delegates for the Democrats and the general low tone and simmering violence of this campaign. Likely, Congress will spend some part of 2017 looking at electoral reforms to prevent this sort of chaos in future elections. Any comprehensive effort at reform has to look at reform of media law as well as electoral law.

Join the discussion Please be relevant and respectful.

The Independent Voter Network is dedicated to providing political analysis, unfiltered news, and rational commentary in an effort to elevate the level of our public discourse.


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306 comments
Deb Carlock
Deb Carlock

Why? Because many voters are too lazy to do their own research. They take the lazy way out and listen to sports, movie, tv, and media people tell them who to vote for. They want things given to them and listen to a sound bite that says what the media wants the voter to hear. The media hopes the voter is too lazy to actually think about what they heard.

Karen McCormick
Karen McCormick

Just six, yes, just 6 corporations own most of the media in the US. And they'd like the big tax break that Trump will give them if elected. If Hillary wins, at least they don't have to worry about her going after them, since she is beholden to the corporation pocketbooks. Sanders? Sanders scares the daylights out of them.

SigfriedTrent
SigfriedTrent

I'm baffled by how little people seem to understand how commercial media works.
1. They get paid based on how many viewers they have (with some demographics being worth more to advertisers than others)
2. Flashy, crazy, dramatic candidates and stories get a lot more viewers.
3. Popularity begets popularity, if you think candidate A is super popular/important, you pay more attention fi they are mentioned
4. This in turn drives the media to cover than candidate more and so they get more interest from the public (its a feedback loop)

So if you click on news stories or watch news programs curious about what Trump is doing, whether you support him or not, you are making a "vote" to keep stories about Trump in the news media and in turn getting others to become interested in Trump and stories about him. Same for Clinton or Sanders or anyone else.

In short, we the public are the ones who pull the strings of big media companies and we do it with our attention.

Jeff Marston
Jeff Marston

Really interesting data, particularly as it relates to Citizen's United "allowed spending" vs. the value of media coverage.

Betsy Bryan
Betsy Bryan

Definitely something BIG to think about. Thanks

Paul Scott
Paul Scott

Because we are a country of really stupid people.

Dianne Molander
Dianne Molander

Trump is getting coverage by msm with their intent to discredit him. All is is doing is perpetuating his rise in popularity as We the People find the msm tactics despicable.

Craig Smith
Craig Smith

We have to keep our comments civil, based on what rules? The ones that Trump follows??

Larry Stout
Larry Stout

GUESS I CAN'T COMMENT CAUSE I'M NOT GONNA BE CIVIL

Bobby Pompa
Bobby Pompa

Media playing the masses wake up already.

Steve Waugh
Steve Waugh

Because the news media has taken a tabloid turn toward the gutter and low information (low intellect) voters are eating it up. Just like Trump predicted over a decade ago.

David Shinder
David Shinder

Great question! Answer--Donald Trump is the epitome of the class clown and everyone knows that comedy gets the most attention. This campaign from the wing nuts is so disgusting you have to laugh!

Daniel O. Christian
Daniel O. Christian

Because they want Hillary in the White House and Trump can't beat her.

Granniverne Bradshaw
Granniverne Bradshaw

guess thats being a smart business man. just sayin reckon he could reduce our national debts that easy. might be worth taking a chance on him. he ll have others to advise him on other things he ll need but we cant survive unless debts are reduced.

Mike Selby
Mike Selby

Great info. Thanks for sharing. Yann's comments below are foundational to understanding what it happening.

Ella Gregory
Ella Gregory

The American people are not stupid. We are tired of the tragi-comedy starring Trump. Democracy will prevail. Character counts. Bernie will eclipse Hillary. The momentum is on.

Jerry Ford
Jerry Ford

If you havent got the guts to stand up and make your voice heard dont complain about the results VOTE !!!

Suzanne Rose
Suzanne Rose

Regrettably, television news is owned by people like Time Warner, a significant contributer to Secretary Clinton. From all one can see, the business side of the house (revenue/ratings) is stronger than the editorial/news side of the house. That being said, social media has grown in four years and it is playing a major role in communicating ideas, positions, and requests for funds. If she/he who raises the most money generally wins, this is also most interesting since there are thousands of engaged individuals participating this year and they are determined to win. Afterall, spending a little money now to become a true democratic republic again is a small price to pay. Also, we'll have a chance to get the FCC make stations and networks provide news "for the good of the people.

Lynn Wood
Lynn Wood

Hahaha......the reason his media coverage is so high is that they want to get him out -- its negative media coverage, all of it.......and now the media is complaining??? It's backfired on the very people complaining!! Suck it up, media!!! Trump 2016!

Vinny Lavorante
Vinny Lavorante

We're not letting them the nazionist run the media so they put in those that will continue to cover up there agendainvthevpast present and future

Jimmy Wallace
Jimmy Wallace

Media do not want Trump but they do want viewers and Trump has viewers!!! America will be better with Trump in 2016

Ron Harger
Ron Harger

All media should be "outlawed" or at least totally controlled.

Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly

Some people are coming around and seeing the light. Late in the game but better late then never.

Mike Hatton
Mike Hatton

Idiots believe whatever they see on television or read on the internet. They have no thought process or ingenuity any longer.

Gordon Bleeker
Gordon Bleeker

There hiding something from the people, something big I'm afraid of. We the people have been sold out for there own agenda and greed. Sad but not to late to make a stand my friends...

Arthur Wilson
Arthur Wilson

"It is the POLITICIANS on BOTH sides of the table who have caused the problems and have incited the divisions that face our nation today. My allegiance and my vote goes to DONALD TRUMP, a NON politician, who loves AMERICA, who is the only man smart enough to fix it, and who is the ONLY LEADER brave enough to speak THE TRUTH. He ALONE can lead us out of the mess created by the very same politicians

David P. Semak
David P. Semak

The bigwigs of each party manipulate the nominee choice in their own ways, dems manipulation of SUPERDELEGATES since rule changes caused by the McGovern debacle are well known. The GOP uses less obvious ways since their SUPERDELEGATES are tied to the popular votes of their state, the bottom line is that the system SUCKS!

Kathy Hunt
Kathy Hunt

And that comes from the 1% owning the media.

Jim Shubin
Jim Shubin

There is no truth requirement for the media.

Chris Tin
Chris Tin

And then there's #BernieSanders. #FeeltheBern

John Graham
John Graham

Whoever counts the votes dictates who wins...Stalin was right.

Linda McDowell
Linda McDowell

The elite pick who becomes president because it sure as hell isn't the ppl or we wouldn't still have Obama in office,they want Hillary to win and I hate to say it but I bet she does and everyone should call for a revote, this time paper not electronic vote.Voter fraud again... It will happen just like always..

Susan Hornbach
Susan Hornbach

We are not! Have you noticed the crowds.? We the people are taking back our country. We have over 100,000 signatures to investigate the fraud. We are making our own voice. The news media is hurting its self by exposing themselves as anti American when they suppress our coverage of Bernie. We have social media. We are strong and we are not giving up. the republican party is finished . Trump and the rest of them have disgraced it The democrats are doing much the same. Bernie is the only true democrat running. Not sure why anyone would be voting otherwise. Bernie is our hope for a better life, for a better economy. Do the Berdie Bern, ♫♪♫ sing a little song, and then GO VOTE!

Arnold Lane
Arnold Lane

---i gave up television a long time ago...it's a vehicle for commerce...a perfect device for dissemination of propaganda... where is the forth estate in all of this?---

Wesley Acker
Wesley Acker

DON'T TAKE ONLINE POLLS!! To all Sanders Supporters: Turns out those cute little "online polls" that show huge support for Bernie have allowed some to CHANGE VOTER REGISTRATION data! --You were a DEM? Not now! Did you change from REP to DEM? Now you're INDEPENDENT that can't vote in primaries! GO CHECK YOUR STATUS right now at https://www.headcount.org/verify-voter-registration/ And AVOID ONLINE POLLS!!

Junior Oliver
Junior Oliver

Because the elite controls the media and the media control the masses. Simple!

Pamela Dunson
Pamela Dunson

Don't think we aren't paying attention because we are. There is going to be hell to pay when Bernie Sanders wins !

Filippo Pizzo
Filippo Pizzo

I agree 100%.. if the media covered all the candidates equally. ...Trump Cruz and Carson would have run out of steam 6 months ago....