Donald Trump’s rise in the world of politics may have come as a shock to many in the GOP, but it isn’t the bombastic front-runner’s opinions that have rankled some: it’s the seemingly never-ending media coverage he’s been able to garner, practically since day one of his candidacy.
The amount of earned media Trump has received is notable, even by presidential race standards. The New York Times attempted to quantify the coverage back in March, when they noted that if Trump had purchased advertising that encompassed the same amount of time as the media coverage he’s received, the total price tag would be $2 billion.
If the logic behind this calculation sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of AVEs—advertising value equivalencies. And just like regular AVEs, the New York Times estimate misses the mark. The value of Trump’s earned media is probably far higher than a straight dollar-to-paid ad comparison.
Why? Well, think of how a person responds to political advertising. Now think of how a person generally responds to watching news coverage. There’s a difference, isn’t there? Paid political advertising, even when it’s done well, is still paid coverage. Most people who aren’t political science majors probably get a fair amount of aerobic exercise launching for the mute button on the remote when political ads come on—but they choose to watch news coverage.
Saying that Donald Trump has received $2 billion in “free” advertising from media coverage because he didn’t buy that time and run political ads makes the same false equivalence between advertising and earned media coverage that AVEs make. It’s a ridiculous measurement standard because the audience reaction and receptivity to the content is strikingly different.
The media don’t want to admit it, but their coverage of Trump went a long way in propelling his campaign forward.
And they really don’t want to admit it. Luke Thompson has a fascinating analysis demonstrating that contrary to media assertions that they simply covered Trump’s rise, they actually were devoting considerable airtime to him well before he started rising in the polls.
This brings us to the question of exactly why Trump has received such a lion’s share of the news coverage over the course of his candidacy. He does have a knack for saying things that get him on the news, that’s true. But there has to be more to it than that, right?
Of course there is, and it’s a dollars issue for the news networks and cable organizations. Back in September 2015, AdAge ran an article (as did others) noting that CNN was asking for—and presumably getting—40 times its usual rate for commercial advertising space during the GOP debates. In late February of this year, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves said of Trump’s candidacy: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He followed with a “the money is rolling in” statement, just so we’re all perfectly clear what he meant by that.
In addition to this being a rather chilling indictment of what motivates the news industry, it also very clearly illustrates that Trump’s media coverage has been worth far more than the $2 billion estimated by the New York Times—both to the candidate himself and the news organizations covering him.
Photo by Gage Skidmore