Why Are We Letting the Media Pick our Leaders?

Author: Steven Moore
Created: 25 March, 2016
Updated: 16 October, 2022
6 min read

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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