ONE NIGHT last week at 10 o'clock, I heard the all-too-familiar "Breaking News" music on CNN. "Oh, my God . . . now what?" I thought, until I saw that the "Breaking News" was Don Lemon interviewing Donald Trump.
Really? First of all, in the prior 24 hours or so, Trump had spoken at length with "Morning Joe," "Good Morning America" (where he apparently called the Philadelphia Daily News the Inquirer . . . talk about a disqualifier!) and even with another CNN journalist, Chris Cuomo. So this wasn't exactly "Garbo speaks." There was nothing exclusive about giving the short-fingered vulgarian more TV time to spout his racist and homophobic views. Yet when you include the inevitable "analysis" of Trump's profound policy pronouncements, pretty much "the full hour" was lost to more ratings-driven Trump coverage.
The other day, Nate Silver - the polling guru who now runs the website FiveThirtyEight.com - went on Twitter to make some interesting points related to Trump, the other candidates and media coverage.
First point: There's considerable evidence that millions more Americans support Bernie Sanders (which means, of course, that even more support Hillary Clinton) than support Trump. How can this be? Look at the early polling numbers. Right now, Trump's national level of support - according to the average compiled by Real Clear Politics - is 30.4 percent of GOP primary voters, while Sanders, sitting in second place among national Democrats, has a level of support of 30.8 percent. But then remember this: There are more Democrats (32 percent of Americans, according to Pew) than Republicans (23 percent). So Sanders has millions more supporting him than does Trump.
Again, you ask: How can this be? That's because television gives people a warped perspective. An outfit called the Tyndall Report tracks coverage on the nightly newscasts of the major networks; despite their declining viewership, it can be argued that this is a good barometer for how the U.S. mainstream media view the world (and a heck of a lot easier to track than the monster that is cable news). And the Tyndall Report's unsurprising conclusion is that Trump has stolen the show.
The group found that - even with more than 20 candidates in the field for most of the year - Trump has gotten more than a quarter of all the network news coverage of the presidential race. In fact, Trump has received more coverage than the entire Democratic field - even though Clinton (who, again, has the most overall support by far) has the second-most face time. Trump's total air time was 234 minutes in 2015. And Sanders - who, remember, is supported by more voters than Trump - has had just 10 minutes of network air time. That's less than one-twenty-third of what Trump received.
Look, there's no rule that news coverage must be exactly equal to a candidate's level of support - indeed, at this stage voters should be learning about all the candidates, including the underdogs. But this is way out of whack. Is it "newsworthy" that a candidate with fascist tendencies saying completely outrageous things is the leader in one of America's political parties? Sure. But events like last week's Don Lemon "exclusive" suggest it's all just one big reality show.
Meanwhile, you'd think the fact that a large voting bloc of Americans enthusiastically support a candidate who brands himself a "democratic socialist" also would be newsworthy. But Sanders got to this point by being serious - promising to tax Wall Street and using the proceeds for free tuition at public universities, for example. That idea was pretty electrifying to the folks I met at Sanders' rallies this fall, but apparently isn't the boffo ratings grabber that a bogus claim of "thousands and thousands" of Muslims cheering 9/11 from New Jersey is. These editorial decisions are warping American democracy.
With 11 months until the final countdown, no one knows where this thing is going. If it all goes south, people will point fingers of blame toward Trump and maybe - fairly or not - to the so-called "low-information voter" so quick to jump on the Trump bandwagon. But no one will have more to answer for than the so-called "deciders" of America's mainstream media.