How does Donald Trump get so much air time? Media ethics under fire.

Trump is skilled at serving up provocative quotes, and news outlets are hungry for viewer eyeballs in a harsh business environment. The result is a 'disturbing symbiosis,' as one media watcher put it. 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on March 21, 2016.

This election season, the news-industry ideal of giving comparable attention to the major presidential candidates has utterly collapsed, and Donald Trump has been the undisputed beneficiary.

Twin forces are at play. The Manhattan billionaire has a clear knack for putting himself in the news through a provocative statement or tweet. But a second factor appears to be at least as important: News organizations, in an era of wrenching financial upheaval, are often following paths of least resistance in their quest for profits.

The tug-of-war between principles and profits in campaign coverage isn’t new for media outlets. But it’s in a new phase, say some experts on the news industry.

“In terms of fairness, they’ve completely blown that concept up,” says Kevin Smith, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and current member of its ethics committee. “The amount of coverage they give to Trump compared to any other candidate is astronomical.”

The coverage isn’t all favorable, by any means. But in focusing attention on one candidate, the numbers are stunning: Last week, an analysis in The New York Times found that Trump had amassed nearly $1.9 billion worth of free media coverage over the course of the campaign, even as his campaign spends less by far than most every other candidate.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, running second now to Trump in the race for the Republican nomination, received about $313 million worth of coverage, according data the Times cited from mediaQuant, in Portland, Ore. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, received $746 million, the Times reported, while her competitor, Sen. Bernie Sanders, received $321 million. And Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the other Republican left in the race, has only received about $38 million in “earned media” coverage over the past year, according to mediaQuant.

The “all Trump, all the time” coverage of many if not most news outlets violates the basic principle of balance in political coverage, Mr. Smith says. “A lot of things that have happened during this election campaign coverage [are] going to find their way into ethics textbooks for years to come.”

Yes, there’s self-referential irony in yet another story about Trump, now questioning that very coverage. But over the past week, the media profession has been doing a bit of journalistic navel gazing, if not hand-wringing, over the outsize coverage of the real estate mogul’s outsize personality. These are the sort of “cleansing conversations” Smith says should happen on a daily basis, particularly during an election season.

Is the public service role of American journalism – its long-understood duty to inform an electorate and thus foster democracy – merely quaint in an era of rollicking Twitter and Facebook feeds?

“It’s a well documented challenge that journalism scholars have been lamenting for over a decade,” says Aram Sinnreich, professor of communication at American University in Washington. “Despite recognizing that they’re violating their public service mandate, news organizations – for large structural reasons that have economic, policy, and technological origins – have an even more immediate mandate to grow audiences and advertising dollars and make more money.”

Political journalism’s principle of fairness, or giving leading candidates at least comparable coverage, has been altogether abandoned this cycle, he says.

“So there is indeed a crisis within journalism, in terms of its ability to perform its central task of reporting the news and maintaining an informed electorate,” says Professor Sinnreich, also a fellow at the Center for Media & Social Impact.

In late February, CBS Chairman Les Moonves told an audience at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco that "Donald's place in this election is a good thing."

"It may not be good for America, but it's [darn] good for CBS," Mr. Moonves said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now?... The money's rolling in and this is fun," he continued. "I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."

The cable news network CNN has seen its ratings climb 170 percent, and during the debates with Trump, ad revenues were 40 times higher than an average night.

“In terms of fairness, “we always talk about ethical breaches as if they are assaults from outside the profession inward,” says Smith, who is also deputy director of The Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at the Ohio State University in Columbus. “So when we revised SPJ’s ethics code in 2014, one of the things we purposefully inserted, something that I wanted in there, was about being an independent journalist – denying favored treatment to special interests and advertisers.”

Governor Kasich, also chasing Trump for the Republican nomination, said voters are only now beginning to get his platform. "Trump got, you know, $1.8 billion worth of free media. I got, like, none. OK?" Kasich told Chuck Todd on NBC’s "Meet the Press" on Sunday.

By contrast, no candidate has mastered the click-hungry media landscape of the digital age more than the brand-savvy reality star. Trump simply taps out something provocative in 140 characters, and it becomes widespread news – a “disturbing symbiosis,” as The New York Times put it, between the GOP front-runner and the news media. As media watchers continue to discuss, after the March 8 elections all of the cable news outlets covered Trump’s entire 45-minute news conference – which he used to highlight Trump Steaks and Trump Wine. At the same time, Mrs. Clinton’s victory speech was not covered.

Sinnreich says the problem has been around since the demise of the “fairness doctrine” in the 1980s, when terrestrial airwaves, the domain of the public, gave way to cable lines, which are private property. “Broadcasters always hated the doctrine,” he says. “It limited their ability to make a profit, and they felt like it was limiting their editorial independence.

“But Trump is a symptom of a new malaise afflicting journalism," he says: the rise of the “attention economy.”  

“So anybody who wants to compete with Trump has to make this devil’s bargain of either trying to communicate something substantive, via a medium that is architecturally antithetical to substance, or to stoop to his level and try to became as much of soundbite-able branded commodity as he is,” Sinnreich says.

And as this happens, Smith says, a “vicious cycle” begins in which journalists mimic the larger profit-driven media culture instead of maintaining their long-held professional and ethical standards.

“And what I believe is happening, journalists, instead of encouraging and trying to bring more people, non-journalists, into the ethical tent of the media, instead find a way to get out from under the tent,” Smith says.

“We should [operate] with the understanding that we have standards,” he says. “And they should be high standards.”

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