How Well is the Media Vetting Donald Trump?
But quantity does not necessarily imply quality. While coverage has been abundant, it is worth exploring the nature of that coverage, and, specifically, whether the media is adequately vetting Trump as a candidate.
Chuck Todd, the host of NBC's Meet the Press, claims that it has.
“A common criticism you’ve heard is that Trump's rise is the media's fault, because we have enabled his rise," Todd has said. "But," he added, before listing several of Trump's flip-flops and liberal-to-conservative policy evolutions, "you could argue that the media has also provided all the material that normally a campaign would want to put together an attack against Trump.”
Yet a survey of attack ads against Trump in recent primary contests belies Todd's claim. According to the FiveThirtyEight blog, attack ads in North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida involved a mix of substantive and identity politics-themed critiques. Many of the ads that criticize Trump quote him not in the context of a tough sit-down interview, but instead replay Trump's freely uttered incendiary comments. Few feature Trump being cornered by the media in recent discussions with journalists.
Indeed, many conservatives have criticized the media for devoting a disproportionate share of its coverage of Trump to replaying his most sensational statements rather than to exposing the inconsistency of his political record.
An analysis of network TV's evening news coverage of Trump between the beginning of his candidacy on June 16, 2015 and January 22, 2016 found that only 9 minutes (1.3 percent of the overall coverage) were devoted to detailing Trump's former liberal positions. Far more attention was given to Trump's more recent controversial comments, including his proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S. (55 minutes), his comment about Mexico sending its rapists to the U.S. (41 minutes), and his claim that Senator John McCain is "not a real hero" for his military service.
Todd's statement that the media has supplied campaigns with material with which to attack Trump is also contradicted by the statement of a head of one of the major networks, Les Moonves, the CEO and president of CBS. "Most of the ads are not about issues," Moonves has said, adding, "They're sort of like the debates."While Moonves has criticized the superficiality of the networks' coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign, he has not failed to notice how the networks have benefitted from it.Commenting on the millions spent by super PACs on television ads during the Trump-centric campaign, Moonves has celebrated that "he money's rolling in" to networks like his own. Aware that Trump's campaign has been "damn good for CBS" in terms of ratings and revenue, Moonves has even cheered on Trump's candidacy, stating, "It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Financial interest then may explain why the networks have been reluctant to press Trump on his comments and views. Indeed, in 2014, Chuck Todd admitted that journalists are often reluctant to given tough interviews for fear that ratings-earning guests will refuse to return to their shows.
The suspicion that the media has been timid in challenging Trump was validated for some after the comedian and radio host Harry Shearer released an audio recording of an off-air conversation between Trump and the hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. Prior to going on air during a town hall interview, Trump said, "Just make us all look good," to which Scarborough replied, "Exactly." Later, Trump said, "Nothing too hard, Mika," followed by Brzezinski saying, "Okay" (though there is an unresolved dispute as to whether Brzezinski was responding to Trump or someone else in a separate discussion).
Yet some commentators have observed that Scarborough and Brzezinski have been tougher on Trump than many journalists. CNN's Anderson Cooper, for instance, was widely pilloried for asking a series of substanceless questions during a one-on-one with Trump, including, "How many hours a night do you sleep?" "What's your favorite kind of music?" and, "What do you eat...when you roll up at a McDonald's?"
It is not as though Cooper had a shortage of substantive things to ask the leading Republican candidate. PolitiFact, which assigns public figures' statements on a meter ranging from "Pants on Fire" to "True," has only rated 3 of 117 assessed statements as entirely truthful. Indeed, in 2015, PolitiFact chose as its "Lie of the Year" a compilation of statements made by Trump on the campaign trail.
While the press has challenged and refuted some of these misstatements, PolitiFact notes that many have received little or no attention by the wider media. These include his claim in mid-2015 that GDP growth is "never below zero" (it has been 42 times in 68 years), his claim that unemployment may be as high as 42 percent (the highest plausible figure is near 15 percent), and his claim that Syrian refugees are only going to Republican-controlled states (they are also sent to states with Democratic governors).
Yet as candidates withdraw from the race, and as the general election approaches, these and other issues may come to the fore. Some figures are urging the media to scrutinize Trump's business record and prior connections with the mob. Trump has also faced minimal questioning about his previous lobbying efforts and how he plans to curtail the influence of special interests if he becomes president.
But with the mainstream media prioritizing ratings and revenue over fact-checking and hard-hitting journalism, it is a matter of when – and even if – the serious vetting of Donald Trump will truly begin.