Media gravitates to the outrageous while ignoring some candidates
Over the past few years, the media has transformed presidential elections from a place of political debate to the set of a reality television show. The most recent GOP debate is only the latest example of this phenomena.
The debates, and the characters who were a part of them, seem to have become a moneymaking opportunity for news organizations. In this latest debate, CNN’s website sported a picture of Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina with the caption “Round Two: The Gloves are Off.”
The result of major news outlets’ focus on the dramatization of this election has caused candidates to resort to increasingly preposterous means of getting noticed. This has been much more pronounced in the Republican field, where the number of candidates is much higher, and nowhere is it more pronounced than with Trump.
According to statistics from the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone, which took into account every time a candidate’s name was mentioned on all major news networks from the beginning of the year to the present, Trump has received the most coverage out of all candidates from both parties. The fact is, Trump is doing something right in this regard, but unfortunately it has very little to do with his policies or his political qualifications.
In an article for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi wrote, “This GOP race is not about policy or electability or even raising money. Instead, it’s about Nielsen ratings or trending.”
Richard Bensel, a professor of government at Cornell University, said this kind of coverage is “detrimental to public debate.”
If this is the case, then Trump really has been doing something right. He is leading in the polls as of the end of September, and according to GDELT’s data, from the moment he announced his candidacy and denounced Mexicans as rapists, he has been getting double the coverage of Hillary Clinton and more than triple the amount of coverage devoted to Jeb Bush, who at one point was Trump’s closest competitor for the nomination.
The inordinate amount of attention on Trump and his inflammatory remarks, combined with the fact that he has stood by these comments, seems to have gotten other candidates thinking. With so many candidates in the running, and with only a certain number allowed to sit at the grown-ups table in the debates, candidates seem to see any attention as good attention.
The result is candidates like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee saying that President Barack Obama is “taking the Israelis and basically marching them towards the door of the oven” with the Iran Nuclear Deal, and then stating the Fourteenth Amendment made abortion illegal, resulting in a brief, yet noticeable bump in the polls.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has since dropped out of the race, attempted to jump on the “build a wall” bandwagon, suggesting the possibility of building a wall on the Canadian border. Yet all these attempts were constantly overshadowed by Trump, who according to GDELT, has received 38 percent of the news coverage out of 17 Republican candidates since the announcement of his candidacy.
Jim Naureckas, an editor of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a national media watchdog group, said the GOP race has become centered around Trump.
“There is a sense that if you want the nomination in the Republican party, that you are going to have to take away some of the Trump vote,” Naureckas said.
While this might make sense, the media’s refusal to let the Trump story die down has resulted in a near chaotic climate in the GOP race. The latest debate on Sept. 16, for example, was a scene of constant jibes and rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric. For the most part, the candidates spoke very little, and not at all seriously, about issues that concern most people in the U.S.
The consequence of this strategy used by Trump and his fellow Republican candidates is that it will come back to bite them following the primary. By allowing the entire party to be pulled further right, candidates are creating the potentially catastrophic problem of losing all of their moderate voter support, Bensel said.
“Trump is a disaster for the Republican party,” he said.
Bensel attributed this “disaster” to the fact that Trump has seized the spotlight and almost single-handedly painted the Republican party as the party of racism, misogynism and the privileged, exactly the image the party is trying to move away from.
The problem of actually getting one’s message across is hardly exclusive to the overcrowded Republican field. The problems faced by Democratic candidates who are not Clinton are equally damning to their ability to accurately convey their positions and policies, but in a different way. For Democratic candidates, the struggle does not seem to be saying the most controversial thing, but rather escaping the massive shadow of the Clinton political machine.
In many ways, doing that is a task more difficult than trying to beat Trump’s level of political incorrectness. As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, has found out, it’s not enough to say something that is far outside the standard party line or to self-identify as a democratic socialist. For him, the problem is not that he is one voice among many, as is the issue for many Republican candidates, it’s that no one seems to care about his voice.
The amount of coverage Sanders has received pales in comparison with the amount Clinton has garnered. According to the GDELT’s research, Clinton has received 80 percent of the coverage among Democratic candidates, while Sanders has received a mere 14.5 percent. Sanders and the other Democratic candidates have been consistently overshadowed since 2013, when speculation already began as to whether Clinton would run.
The strange part about this is television networks and newspapers spent months complaining Clinton had no challenger to face. However, now that she has one, no major news organization has given Sanders much attention.
Furthermore, the argument many news sites have given in response to questions regarding why they are not covering Sanders is they thought his numbers were too low to win. However, Bensel said this far from the election, poll numbers really do not have much bearing on what will actually happen. Even Nate Silver, the editor of FiveThirtyEight, who called 49 out of 50 states correctly in the 2008 election, waited until very close to the actual election to make his determinations. And, despite the media’s focus on poll numbers, coverage of Sanders has been slow to catch up to his increasing popularity in the polls.
A May 29 article titled “The Press and Bernie Sanders” written by Eric Boehlert for Media Matters for America, stated Sanders’ campaign announcement drew one of the largest crowds any candidate had drawn up to that point, but many news organizations did not even give it a mention. In fact, most of the coverage of it seemed to focus on his unkempt hair, rather than the policy goals he was outlining.
According to a different article, published Sept. 24 and also by Boehlert, many news networks have been partially ignoring Sanders because they have found the Clinton email scandal more fascinating, devoting half of Clinton’s total air time to the topic.
In contrast, Boehlert stated, Sanders has received as much air time as Mitt Romney received when he announced that he was not going to run for President again. He is also getting overshadowed in terms of coverage by Bush’s campaign, even though Sanders is doing much better in the key states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to Boehlert.
Part of the problem, Naureckas suggested, is Sanders is not following the “rules” of campaigning. He is a Washington outsider for the most part, and he doesn’t act like most other candidates. For instance, Sanders has not involved himself with major donors and has used grassroots campaign tactics as opposed to the large-scale political machine campaigning used by most of the other candidates. Naureckas suggested that this may be part of the reason Sanders has been largely ignored. Boehlert also points out the media seem unsure of how exactly to cover Sanders. He is not acting like the politician that Clinton is, but neither is he subscribing to the radical raving the Republican party is currently engaged in. According to a May 19 article titled “America’s Views Align Surprisingly Well With Those of ‘Socialist’ Bernie Sanders,” published in Mother Jones and written by Josh Harkinson, most of the things Sanders is saying are proposals much of the American people agree with, but he is portrayed as being on the fringes of the political spectrum, somewhere very far left of center.
The problem Sanders and other Democratic candidates face is not that they are one voice lost among many, as is the problem facing many Republicans, but one voice that no one seems to want to acknowledge.
The real consequences of the disproportionate coverage of the candidates have not yet been felt, but in the coming weeks and months they will become apparent. Real debate will be drowned out by outrageous comments, and a lack of effective and meaningful political debate could result in the most disastrous election in recent history.
Otto Bonk is a sophomore politics and English double major with a minor in telling stupid media people how to do their damn jobs. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.