Political commentators continue to be amazed by Donald Trump's success. A man who a year ago was considered a joke candidate is now ahead of Hillary Clinton in some polls.
The conventional wisdom is that Trump is succeeding because he has tapped into Middle America's disenchantment with the status quo. While there is an element of truth to this view, it doesn't fully explain the Trump phenomenon. The larger explanation is that the media is to blame for Donald Trump.
For the most part, media outlets have given Mr. Trump a free ride. Trump's outrageous statements and positions have not only failed to disqualify him from the race, they have actually increased his profile and popularity. Instead of forcefully challenging Trump on each and every one of his lies and exaggerations, the media have simply winked and given him a pass.
The reason behind this sad state of affairs is the ongoing transformation of serious journalism into infotainment. Where once media outlets devoted time, money and manpower to in-depth reporting as a civic duty, now the bottom line is ratings and profits.
Fifty years ago, network newsrooms were not expected to make money whereas today they, too, must be profit centers. Sadly, broadcast licenses no longer seem to be contingent on serving the public good.
The bottom line for any media outlet today is the same as it is for any enterprise: profit. That means newspapers, magazines and TV networks can no longer afford to commit reporters to long-term, in-depth reporting. It also means that sensationalism rules the newsroom as in: "If it bleeds, it leads."
All this means that news outlets care less about serious reporting and fact-checking and more about capturing as many readers or viewers as possible. It also means that these outlets have an inbuilt bias, what I call the horse race factor.
Check any current newspaper or television news broadcast and it is likely dominated by polling numbers for the candidates and "balanced" coverage. "Balanced" in this context means that the two candidates get an equal amount of coverage regardless of the merits or veracity of their positions.
The media often don't have the time, resources or incentive to thoroughly investigate the candidates' positions or even call them out for lying. That used to be an essential element of political reportage but it seems now that journalism has been reduced to giving equal time to each candidate no matter what they say.
In fact, the horse race factor dictates that the inferior candidate may even get less scrutiny and more trivial coverage if he's running significantly behind in the polls. Think about it; which race do you want to watch: the potential photo-finish or the complete rout?
This race horse factor was evident during the recent Commander-in-Chief forum which was supposed to deal with veterans affairs and foreign policy. Instead moderator Matt Lauer spent an inordinate amount of time forcing Hillary Clinton to rehash her e-mail issue. Trump, on the other hand, was allowed to lie outright about his antebellum opposition to the Iraq War with no push back from Mr. Lauer. All this was likely due to the desire (conscious or unconscious) to have as close a presidential race as possible.
That's not to say that all media outlets are guilty of this sin. The Washington Post, for example, has consistently investigated Donald Trump's lies and challenged him on his tenuous positions. Fact-checking sites like Politifact and FactCheck.org have also tried to keep Trump honest but to no avail.
So long as the news media are more concerned with eyeballs, ratings and profits, candidates like Donald Trump (and even Hillary Clinton to a lesser extent) can lie, dissemble and obfuscate with few, if any, consequences. After all, you and I love a close horse race and the media just want to oblige.
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