He's the story, not the election.

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Donald Trump, CNN and the Missing Airplane

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Media norms have shifted, and that may affect how the general election plays out. It certainly affected Republican nomination politics.

Vox’s David Roberts has a terrific item arguing that the media will build Donald Trump up and tear Hillary Clinton down because: “No institution needs a competitive election more than the media, especially what remains of the ‘objective’ campaign media.” Nick Confessore of the New York Times disagreed

Nick Confessore @nickconfessore
I think it is unlikely that Trump dominates free media in a two-way general election against Hillary Clinton as he did in the primary.
Twitter: Nick Confessore on Twitter

What both Roberts and Confessore are missing is the plane. The missing Malaysian airplane.

Remember how CNN managed to get a year’s worth of programming out of the disappearance of the Malaysian jetliner in March 2014? It was the kind of story that once might have run its course after a week, at most, with sporadic updates after that. But CNN kept its coverage going nonstop with conspiracy theories, speculation about paranormal events and even wackier fare. It was a hit for CNN, which had fallen behind Fox News and was widely seen as having lost its niche. 

CNN simply extended this model into the 2016 election.  And what CNN began in the summer of 2015, the other cable networks and the broadcast news outlets emulated. Donald Trump became the new missing airplane, producing his own wave of what now passes for political news. The “story” CNN and other networks have been covering isn’t the election. It’s Trump. And it may well remain Trump during the general-election period too. It’s working: CNN is now getting terrific ratings.

Yes, the political coverage still looks like the old CNN on election nights. Here’s Wolf Blitzer with updates; there’s John King with his magic wall; here are rows and rows of pundits and spinners. But over the course of any week of the nomination cycle, the result was hours and hours of Trump-centric coverage.

As long as this continues, the old media norms, such as those Roberts and Confessore think will apply, may no longer hold. We can't assume the candidates will receive roughly equal time coverage, for example -- at least for those media playing by the new rules (and that includes most television news, network and cable). Instead of a general election where the media plays by the rules of “neutral” journalism (which, as Roberts points out, is not always exactly neutral), we may see continued coverage of Trump, with the election as the setting and his opponent a supporting player. 

While the “missing airplane” coverage helped Trump in Republican presidential primaries, it might hurt him in the general election. Changes in the information environment should matter less in the general election than in the primaries, because most voters already have a partisan commitment when they vote in November.

Still, even the decisions partisan voters reach could be affected if they are hearing something different from what has been the case for decades. 

Just as this novel form of coverage helped scramble what we thought we knew about nomination politics, it may well play out in unpredictable ways if it continues into the fall. So beware of analysis (like my own during the nomination period) that makes predictions based on how information used to be transmitted. 

  1. Of course, saturation coverage isnt new. It dates back to the O.J. Simpson case, at least. But the Malaysian plane episode demonstrated that something with no new news developments at all could serve the same purpose, making it a successful format for politics coverage. Of course, having a reality-TV star in the race made it easier, but it couldnt have happened if the model hadnt already been invented.

  2. Remember too that while the percentage of Americans who get most of their news from broadcast news, or even cable news, is way down, that number is much higher among older people -- exactly the group most likely to vote in low-turnout elections such as primaries, especially in Republican primaries.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net