In recent days the media is arguing with itself over whether it shares responsibility for the success of the Trump campaign. In the Sunday New York Times, Nicholas Kristof did his “Mea culpa,” admitting that the media failed to fact-check Trump, instead displaying an “ironical affection for a celebrity.”
In response, Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post angrily argued that the media didn’t create Trump. He tries to blame Republican voters for rallying to Trump, and exonerates the press for responding to the “free market” by covering the leading candidates.
Both commentators miss the reality of the mass electronic media in the modern telecommunications society. With the rise of cable news, the public looks to the news show for its information. The networks define and control the content of those shows. It is this coverage that makes or breaks the candidates, especially in the early stages of the race when name I.D. determines who shows up in the early polling. The coverage provides the name I.D., which shows up in the polls, which have become the obsession of the networks.
In Trump’s case, the combined networks provided $1.9 billion worth of free T.V. exposure. Trump himself said he didn’t need to spend money on advertising because it was all being given to him. No one objects to covering a candidate making news, but when a candidate telephones in a speech, or his rally speech is covered at length, these are real campaign contributions.
In the end, the free air time won’t elect a candidate whose message isn’t accepted by the public. But if you are not selected for public participation by the networks, you never have a chance. Why is the public restricted on how much money they can give to a candidate, but the networks can donate billions without limit?
Robinson, in his op-ed, even expresses contempt for my candidacy and the candidacy of Gov. Martin O’Malley, saying we shouldn’t get the airtime of Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz. Why, Mr. Robinson, shouldn’t two former governors with records of governance have the opportunity to present their cases as much as Clinton or Cruz?
When I campaigned in New Hampshire, I didn’t get the feeling that the voters were rejecting my message of economic growth, jobs, wage increases, experience, and national security. The voters never heard my message or were even aware I was there. The airwaves were full of Trump and the other candidates selected by the networks for participation. The chance to gain support was simply denied.
Additionally, the television networks display the candidates they select to be on their morning, evening, daily, and weekend talk shows. Only those candidates are involved in the public discussion, and the public takes the cue as to who’s real and who isn’t. Who chooses those candidates for those shows? We don’t know, but you can bet these producers are maximizing the sales of their advertising, not trying to inform the public.
To make matters worse, the Republican National Committee outsourced the nomination process to the television networks by granting them the authority to conduct the debates, and set the criteria for admission to the debate stage. My experience on the campaign trail was that voters said “I like your background and ideas, but you’re not in the debates, so you’re not in the race.” The candidates who got on the stage got the legitimacy. Those candidates got the name I.D. which helped them in the polls, which got them back on the debate stage. The networks even got to select the polls used as admission criteria to the debates they were running.
It’s time to recognize that our democracy has been hijacked by the national electronic television media. They decide who the voters get to see, and who is not allowed to run. The exposure granted by the television media are campaign contributions. At the very least there should be a report to the public every week, or every day, of the amount of appearances granted to selected candidates and the monetary value they are receiving.
The airwaves do not belong to the networks; they belong to the people of the United States. The standard supposedly imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for a license to broadcast is that the public interest be served by broadcasting all sides of important public questions, fairly, objectively and with no bias. Under these standards, the networks’ licenses should not be renewed.
The FCC should convene a joint meeting with the Federal Election Commission to address the political in kind contributions made by the networks to their selected candidates by virtue of their selection of who they cover and how much. The agencies that regulate need to get with the reality of today.
The people’s own democracy is being subverted by those networks which are granted the privilege of making money by turning the political process into a vulgar circus and reality show. Eugene Robinson says the media didn’t create the Trump phenomenon. He says, “For the record, we didn’t.”
Mr. Robinson, for the record, you did.