In the aftermath of the second presidential debate there was much hand-wringing among the corporate news media over the sorry state of American politics. The latest instance being Donald Trump’s suggestion that if he became president, Hillary Clinton would be jailed for allegedly deleting tens of thousands of e-mails as secretary of state.
“Why, if this came up in another country our State Department would say it was undemocratic,” suggested one talking head said, with a second chiming in that, “we would send monitors.”
Pundits lamented: How could our great American democracy have descended into such a “thugocracy” that one major party candidate for the highest office in the land would threaten to jail his opponent? How could such an authoritarian get so close to the Oval Office?
Ironically, the answer is that the very same corporate news media feigning alarm about Trump threatening to jail his presidential opponent, were the hidden hands that boosted Trump with hundreds of millions of dollars in free coverage that helped him decimate the field of Republican rivals.
Back in March of 2016, The New York Times carried an analysis by mediaQuant, a media analytics firm, that documented that Trump had gotten close to $2 billion dollars in free media coverage while spending just $10 million in political advertising. That’s almost the same amount of free media garnered by all of the 16 other candidates combined, and “about twice the all-in price of the most expensive presidential campaigns in history,” the Times reported.
Back in February, CBS’s Les Moonves told a conference of investors that Trump’s campaign was great for his company’s bottom line, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Moonves said. "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.”
Charlie Cook, the editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, told C-Span this weekend that the news media was now twisting itself in knots, even violating basic principles of objective journalism, in an all-out effort to put the Trump genie back in the bottle.
Cook said that from the start of the campaign, “cable networks basically handed their airwaves to Trump,” with “networks that have never shown complete speeches before” going wall-to-wall with coverage. “And then in the early debates, in the debates during the Republican side,” the news media failed to hold “Trump’s feet to the fire, ’cause they did not want to alienate him because whenever he came on their air, even on the phone, their ratings shot up.
“So they did not aggressively go after him for the longest time, and now they are taking out a lead pipe beating the hell out of him,” Cook said. “It’s like watching a basketball game that has been badly refereed and where they make a bunch of bad calls and they start making make-up calls towards the end.”
But it wasn’t just the fawning free media that set the stage for Trump. It was also the news media’s failure for years to report on the real economic damage and dislocation experienced by tens of millions of Americans whose lives were upended by our embrace of free trade and globalization. It was these voters’ sense of unaddressed grievances that helped spawn the populism Trump has exploited.
And it wasn't just the corporate news media ignoring this cohort of a growing American underclass, but rather its failure to critically evaluate the conduct of the ever-widening global war on terrorism that put such heavy burden on one small sliver of America's working class to carry the 15-year effort with multiple deployments.
By the time the Republican primary cycle made it to South Carolina, one of the states with the highest percentages of active duty and retired military families, Trump won that election thanks to the military vote that he earned when he said what the media had avoided reporting, that the invasion of Iraq was a blunder of catastrophic proportions.
The news media losing touch with America's military families left a void of truth-telling that Donald Trump filled gladly by going against Republican orthodoxy – by holding former President George W. Bush accountable for the war in Iraq, something the corporate news media would never do, in the interest of self-preservation, even if it put the broader democracy at risk.
Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist and a contributor to Salon.