Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
From the moment Donald Trump launched his campaign in August, 2015 – a spectacle of sloganeering, speeches and spite – he received more coverage than any candidate in the 2016 U.S. election, and arguably more coverage than any presidential candidate in U.S. history.
In some ways, this was not surprising: Mr. Trump had been a mainstay of the U.S. press for decades, locked in a synergistic exploitation hinging on Mr. Trump's lack of shame. His affairs – business and personal – were everyone's concern, and both he and the press wanted it that way. Mr. Trump has always been good for bad business. He has always been inflammatory and tactless, qualities which buoyed his reality-TV career.
Prior to 2015, the focus on Mr. Trump was forgivable: Few expected they were building up the first white-supremacist candidate on a major party ticket.
But by fall 2015, it was clear Donald Trump was no joke. His rhetoric against Muslims, Mexicans and other non-white, non-Christian Americans buoyed hate groups and led to physical attacks. Some outlets, like the Huffington Post, began to run disclaimers noting his history of bigotry and lies.
But most outlets followed the precepts of CBS chairman Les Moonves: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.… Bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
Mr. Trump kept going, until he won the nomination, and then it was too late.
Initial over-promotion of Mr. Trump was likely based on a lust for ratings. Since roughly 2001, the U.S. media economy has been in free fall. He brought much-needed clicks and cash to a dying industry. But ratings lust doesn't explain the sycophantic coverage of Mr. Trump today. Reporters often neglect issues of substance – like Mr. Trump's many corruption scandals or his refusal to release his tax returns – while the slightest misstep by Hillary Clinton receives endless scrutiny. (When she coughs, the media catches delirium.)
Some have accused the media of fabricating a "horse race," but this is an erroneous assumption. As shown over the summer – when Mr. Trump insulted the family of a fallen veteran, feuded with a baby and called on Russia to obtain Ms. Clinton's e-mails, among other things – one does not need to cover Mr. Trump favourably to get favourable ratings. Viewers will tune in because it is the Trump Show. Ms. Clinton, similarly, is a source of both fascination and contempt. Americans will watch no matter what.
Something more ominous seems to be guiding the skewed coverage. Mr. Trump has named the media his enemy, despite its history as his friend. He has banned multiple organizations from his rallies. He has a history of litigation, is currently suing several outlets over articles on his wife, and is backed by Peter Thiel, the billionaire who sued Gawker out of existence. He is also advised by Roger Ailes, the former Fox News chief who has compiled massive dossiers on journalists he despises.
Mr. Trump's campaign is run by Steve Bannon, a veteran of Breitbart, a paramount right-wing website. On Aug. 18, Mr. Bannon's employees told the Associated Press of their plan to "humanize" Mr. Trump in the media and "use the Internet to win a general election." The AP went on that week to release a Trump puff piece ignoring all scandals, a widely debunked exposé on the Clinton Foundation, a fake map showing the candidates tied, and other pro-Trump coverage. The AP's behaviour was so egregious that it was questioned on CNN, where AP editor Kathleen Carroll admitted they were printing lies, but shrugged off the complaints. (On Friday, The AP admitted they had erred in their election coverage.)
CNN, meanwhile, has hired Mr. Trump's former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a paid commentator while he is still being paid by the Trump campaign. CNN is headed by Jeff Zucker, former CEO of NBC, which produced Mr. Trump's reality-TV series The Apprentice. Today Mr. Zucker keeps a framed Trump tweet in his office.
On Twitter, Mr. Trump gleefully brags about his insider knowledge of the media industry. Given his 40 years working in or with the media, he likely has secrets that could destroy careers. Trailing in the polls, Mr. Trump is planning to launch his own media empire should he lose the election. Some U.S. journalists appear to be auditioning. Others seem scared into silence.
Americans in general should also be afraid. Mr. Trump, who spent his life buying buildings, appears to have bought the Fourth Estate.