Just two more days to the next Republican Primary debate in the long-running, messy spectacle known as the 2016 Presidential election. So, gather round, pop the popcorn and settle down to watch the next episode of Donald Trump and Friends.
This Tuesday, the leading GOP candidates will assemble in the ornate halls of The Venetian, that gaudy temple to bad taste in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Donald should feel right at home.
Here in Annapolis, we have an excellent perspective on this carnival. We are close enough to Washington to follow the action, but far enough away so your shoes don’t get splattered with mud. All we have to do is tune in to CNN at 9 p.m. Tuesday and watch Wolf Blitzer herd the cats.
It is not really a debate in the Lincoln-Douglas sense, of course, rather a calculated cage fight in which Trump is expected to rail against immigration and Muslims, and Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush and others will struggle for air time.
Along with most political and world leaders, many in the media started to turn on The Donald in the past week in the wake of his xenophobic proposal to bar Muslims from entering the country. He was widely criticized — but widely covered — on social media and most evening and morning news shows. My former paper, The New York Times, had the story at the top of page one, describing Trump’s remarks as “an extraordinary escalation of language aimed at voters’ fears about members of the Islamic faith.”
The result: Trump remains at or near the top of most polls of likely Republican primary voters, and the GOP establishment is starting to worry about a brokered convention.
The dirty little secret over the last several months is that the media has been fully and joyfully culpable in the extraordinary rise of Donald Trump, giving him almost unlimited air time with scant hard questioning, aiding and abetting his rise in the polls.
There is an unacknowledged-but-profitable symbiotic relationship between Trump and news organizations: the more outrageous his statements, the more coverage — “free media” is the term of art — the greater the ratings.
The GOP debates are a case in point: they have been a revenue bonanza for the cable channels that have carried them.
The first Republican debate on Fox News last August attracted a record audience of 24 million. A month later, CNN pulled in 23 million, half-again its largest audience ever. CNBC attracted 14 million in October. The November debate on the Fox Business channel , which rarely has 100,000 people watching, pulled in 13 million viewers.
Four years ago, the Republican primary debates drew 4-to-6 million viewers. Needless to say, this year’s record ratings translate into serious ad revenue.
I’m not suggesting the debates are not worthwhile; they are. I’m not disputing that the coverage of Trump is justified; it is. A presidential candidate who is leading in most polls six weeks before the Iowa caucus is news, no matter how outlandish his positions.
But more rigorous questioning of Trump would be welcome, along with more consistent fact-checking of his fabrications. The wall-to-wall coverage of his pronouncements is wearing thin.
Many in the media have been and remain skeptical of The Donald and his chances of actually securing the GOP nomination. In fact, my former colleague on the PBS NewsHour, David Brooks, has doubled down on his prediction that Trump will collapse from the weight of his own baggage.
And Dana Milbank in The Washington Post dropped all pretense of objectivity in his column when he flatly labeled Trump a racist and bigot and compared him to Il Duce.
But perversely, the more Trump is denounced, the more popular he becomes with his hard-core supporters who see him as refreshingly honest. The running controversy is likely to build audience for Tuesday’s debate, not diminish it.
And in the now-familiar Trump playbook, any publicity — even this column – is good publicity.
Terence Smith, who lives in Annapolis, is a former media correspondent on the PBS NewsHour.