Why Donald Trump Is King of All Earned Media (Guest Column)

Donald Trump Gossip Illustration - H 2015
Tim Bower/The Hollywood Reporter

Donald Trump Gossip Illustration - H 2015

So far this year, the real estate mogul has attracted more airtime than all other presidential candidates combined.

“Earned” is the media-business nickname for publicity and promotion given to a political candidate that is not paid for. It mostly refers to journalism: the dissemination of campaign messages through news outlets rather than through paid advertising.

Needless to say, Donald Trump is the King of All Earned Media.

To take just one example, look at coverage of the Trump campaign on the old-school nightly newscasts of the three broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS and NBC combined), whose average audiences each evening total some 25 million viewers. So far this year, Trump has attracted more airtime (175 minutes) than all other candidates combined (Hillary Clinton, 60; Bernie Sanders, 44; Ted Cruz, 32; Marco Rubio, 14 and so on — data through the end of last week, March 11, weekdays only).

Because “earned” media is not bought and sold like advertising, such coverage is sometimes dubbed “free.” This is misleading since it implies that news outlets just give their airtime away. Of course they don’t. Trump gets coverage because he provides the raw ingredients for compelling television. As CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves joked: Donald Trump is “damn good for CBS.” Trump has worked for his earned media. He's earned it fair and square. Let’s count the ways.

1. News

Not to belabor the obvious, but: A phenomenon gets more coverage when it is newsworthy, when it breaks the mold. Trump’s candidacy is not only unprecedented — his lack of traditional credentials, his disdain for accepted civil discourse, his cursory interest in public policy issues — it may also precipitate the disintegration of a major political party. That’s news.

2. Sound bites

Trump understands that the threshold for what makes headlines is different for political journalism than for other news beats. With other types of breaking news, reporters deliver the underlying details of a newsworthy event and then seek sound bites in reaction to it. The sound bite is secondary. In politics, an inflammatory or outrageous sound bite is newsworthy per se. Trump, with his years of practice as a reality TV character, knows how to say something that grabs headlines.

3. Discipline

For a traditional candidate, an attribute prized above all others is message discipline — the Bernie Sanders-like ability to return any answer to a question, any issue, back to some underlying core principles of a candidacy. Trump’s discipline belongs in a different category. Campaigning as a Strong Man who will Make America Great Again, Trump does not rely on a core message, but rather on a core persona. Persona discipline makes him stay in character, whatever happens to come out of his mouth. Message discipline makes for boring television because it is so predictable. Persona discipline permits those unpredictable, outrageous sound bites.

4. Access

With the proviso that Trump persuades producers to bend the rules for him, by allowing him to phone in without a video feed, Trump combines the promise of freewheeling, unpredictable sound bites with an openness to be interviewed live on-air in formats that a more buttoned-down candidate would consider risky. Having dispensed with the shackles of message discipline, Trump feels free to riff on an entire range of topical news developments that his rivals might shy away from for fear of committing ill-informed gaffes. Thus Trump is golden for MSNBC’s Morning Joe and all the Sunday morning interview shows.

5. Innovation

On the network nightly newscasts, the traditional formats for covering a presidential campaign are: the horse race, the jockeying for position of the rival candidates as they face various electoral hurdles; and the issues, their respective policy platforms, which can be compared and contrasted apples-to-apples. These formats allow TV news to maintain an approximate parity and neutrality with regard to all candidates, with the reporter’s job being to observe them as they go about the business of campaigning, with get-out-the-vote efforts and paid media. Trump’s campaign is not out there, to be observed by TV news. On the contrary, TV news is the medium through which it is being presented. That old position of parity and neutrality is untenable; the new one is participation and co-optation. Trump is not apples-to-apples with his rivals, but apples-to-orange, to coin a phrase.

6. Rallies

In recent weeks, we have caught a glimpse of how the Trump campaign will unfold in the months to come. As the feasibility of his candidacy becomes more apparent, the opposition to it is becoming more organized. Trump’s rallies were always potentially newsworthy events, since his speeches are largely extemporaneous, relying on scant message discipline, and the crowd-manipulation skills he learned from Vince McMahon at WrestleMania. An outrageous sound bite or interaction with supporters was always likely to occur (remember his “pussy” scold?). Now, however, there is the possibility that more serious news will be made, as protestors grow more vociferous and supporters more combative in response. Trump seems to be beefing up stadium security at his events. Imagine if he starts dressing his security in uniform shirts, dark-colored shirts. Now that would be newsworthy.

Donald Trump’s candidacy is a threat to the Republican Party establishment. Obviously, it threatens to dismantle key components of the GOP policy platform: abandoning free trade in favor of tariffs, imposing a religious test for entry into the country, ordering mass deportations, abnegating the Geneva Convention on war crimes. His candidacy also threatens the party establishment in another way: The entire industry of political operatives — the consultants, the fundraisers, the pollsters, the microtargeters, the oppo research ad-makers — will see its business model upended if Trump proves elections can be won on the basis of earned media alone.