Maybe It Really Is the Media’s Fault

Stuart Rothenberg April 5, 2016 · 9:22 AM EDT

Reporters like to snicker when members of the public — or even better, folks in the political class — blame the media for an unexpected development or unwelcome outcome. Don’t blame us, they respond, acting as if they are mere observers who have little or no responsibility for the political wars.

Well, veteran Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen and analytics expert Luke Thompson don’t buy that, and they offer recent data to support their assessment.

Neither analyst just fell off the turnip truck. Van Lohuizen earned his doctorate in political science from Rice University in 1978, and he and his firm Voter/Consumer Research have polled for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, George W. Bush’s two presidential campaigns, and, this cycle, Right to Rise, the super PAC that supported the presidential candidacy of Jeb Bush.

Thompson, who holds a doctorate in political science from Yale and now heads political consulting firm Ad Astra Insights, served last cycle as Director of Analytics for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Most recently, he was the Chief Empiricist for Right to Rise.

Both analysts wanted to explain Donald Trump’s success, and after looking at both the coverage Republican presidential candidates received going back to January 2015 and polling data during the race, they have settled on what they call “a simpler explanation: he is the most visible Republican by far.” (All graphs are based on data from Internet Archive’s TV News Archive.)

Trump receives three times the coverage that Ted Cruz and John Kasich do combined, argue van Lohuizen and Thompson. “Trump was getting 50 percent of the exposure when there were more than a dozen candidates – and it has increased since.”

“CNN led the way, but all of the television medium has been in lock-step covering Trump since at least summer 2015,” they insist.

Van Lohuizen and Thompson dismiss the inevitable media response that the media are just covering the front-runner in the race. They compared Trump’s share of media coverage with his share in public polls and found that “a spike in media coverage preceded Trump’s rise in the polls by a full month.”

The two strategists note CBS President and CEO Les Moonves’ comment in The Hollywood Reporter that the presidential race “may not been good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” as well as Moonves’ comment “Sorry, it’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on Donald. Keep going.”

Van Lohuizen and Thompson draw a few conclusions from all of this.

First, TV remains powerful. Talk all you want about Twitter, Trump’s digital campaign or his campaign organization, little else matters if one candidate “completely dominates television.” Trump has done that – or maybe it is more accurate to say that the media has made sure that Trump succeeded in doing that.

Second, van Lohuizen and Thompson observe that, according to a mid-March piece in the New York Times,  the value of Trump’s media coverage has been put at close to $2 billion, and they argue that “no fundraising and advertising effort can match it.”

Third, Trump’s coverage suggests that it is no longer enough to be “newsworthy” to get “earned media.” Now, you need to be “infotaining,” which drives TV ad sales, assert the two GOP strategists.

Journalists, and especially those on the business side of journalism, surely will answer that they are merely giving viewers what they want. That may well be the case, but there was a time when journalists also had a civic duty, not just a financial motive.