Trump machine whirring on endless media exposure
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has found his running mate: the media.
The business mogul has sustained his status at the top of the Republican presidential nominating contest by stealing the spotlight from his opponents, generating headlines (yes, including this one), and grabbing air time on daytime talk shows, cable news programs, and nightly comedy shows.
Not only did the longtime practitioner of media manipulation use his skills to catapult quickly to the top of the polls after announcing his campaign, but he has managed to stay at the top for nearly three months — an extraordinary run for an outsider candidate — with few signs of abating.
And now there’s this: He will host “Saturday Night Live” next month, becoming the first presidential front-runner to commandeer the entire 90-minute program. Next week, he will appear on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show on ABC. NBC’s Matt Lauer is also moderating a live town hall meeting in New Hampshire with Trump on Oct. 26.
Saturation media coverage has given Trump an unrivaled platform to fire his bursts of controversial declarations and spew his self-promotional bromides. It helps explain how he continues to defy predictions of his imminent demise.
He’s everywhere, all the time — with little expense from his campaign.
“My life,” Trump said in an interview Thursday, “has always been that way.”
Over the past few weeks, Trump has been on the cover of People Magazine (“At home with the Trumps!”), Time (“Deal with it”), New York (“Donald Trump is Saving Our Democracy”), as well as Rolling Stone, the Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times Magazine.
“He is a ratings machine, and television knows a good thing when it sees it. It’s a little bit — not the perfect storm — it’s the perfect Trump,” said Frank Sesno, a former Washington bureau chief at CNN who is now director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. “For the moment his star burns bright, and people, and networks, will try to get as close to that as they can. . . . The media’s going along for the ride as long as there’s a ride to go along for.”
The ride has been a good one for media companies, which have capitalized with a rise in Nielsen ratings, which helps drive up ad revenue.
Speaking by phone from his New York office, Trump pondered the question of whether it’s possible for him to be overexposed.
“I don’t know. I can’t answer that question,” the candidate said in the interview with the Globe. “It’s never happened before for me. I’ve always had more saturation than anybody else, no matter what I did. I don’t work at it, as you understand. I didn’t call you, you called me. You understand?
“I don’t call anybody. I never call anybody,” he added, saying he turns down 95 percent of the media requests he receives. “I don’t call ‘60 Minutes,’ they call me. ‘Saturday Night Live’ calls me. And it’s an honor to be called by them.”
But there is also a question of fairness. Trump just dials the phone from the Trump Tower in Manhattan to numerous cable television shows, without having to appear on camera. Coverage of his campaign has frequently come at the expense of the other candidates, making it difficult for them to gain traction — unless they make a comment about Trump.
“The place where the Trump candidacy has been most disruptive in a media sense is to deprive very credible individuals of media time and attention so they can actually make their case,” Sesno said. “How many great profiles of Carly Fiorina or Marco Rubio or Chris Christie or Ted Cruz have you seen as freestanding segments on MSNBC or CNN or the nightly news?”
Lauren Roseman, a spokeswoman for “Saturday Night Live,” would not comment on the record about whether other candidates were offered similar invitations. But she indicated that the show would consider requests from other candidates following Trump’s appearance and would follow Federal Communications Commission regulations.
FCC rules require that broadcasters treat all candidates in a given race the same by giving them “equal time.” Several other candidates, including Jeb Bush, Rubio, and Fiorina, declined to comment on whether they have also been asked to appear on “SNL,” or what they thought of Trump’s appearance.
Trump has a long history with NBC, which began airing his show “The Apprentice” in 2004. But in June, NBC ended its “business relationship” with Trump because of disparaging comments he made about Mexican immigrants.
Trump’s dominance in the media is, as he might say, huge.
In September, Trump captured 22 percent of the presidential campaign mentions on network and cable television, with his nearest GOP rival, Fiorina, getting 10 percent, according to an analysis provided to the Globe by Zignal Labs, a San Francisco-based media analytics company. He was even more dominant on Twitter.
Trump gained mastery of the media during his decades dealing with New York tabloids as a young and showy real estate developer.
He writes in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” that he learned to be “a little outrageous” and play up the sensational. And the risk of a bad story is still worth the free media coverage.
“A little hyperbole never hurts,” he wrote. “People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
He has taken those lessons, from a lifetime in business and entertainment, and applied them to his political campaign.
Trump said he originally planned to have spent about $20 million on television ads, but has delayed spending because of the free media attention he’s gotten. He said viewers would be overloaded if he were also airing ads.
“I’ve spent zero,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I won’t. I have a lot of money, and I can spend whatever I want. But I don’t want to waste money.”
“Think of it,” he added. “I spent the least, and I’m in first place by a lot. Isn’t that a wonderful trait? It’s like the great Charles O. Finley. He had the lowest salary in baseball, and he won three World Series in a row. There’s something awfully smart about that, right?”
Even in a week largely dominated by the first Democratic debate, Trump managed to insert himself. CNN’s coverage on Tuesday noted that Trump was going to be tweeting about the Democratic debate. Then, live from Las Vegas, CNN interviewed Wayne Newton about his support for Trump. Not long after, Trump appeared on Fox News.
On Wednesday, Trump called into ABC’s “Good Morning America” to talk about the debate, and then later sat down for an interview with MSNBC.
By the afternoon, fresh polls were out: Trump had a newly dominant lead in two key states — Nevada and South Carolina — which drove more discussion about Trump’s staying power at the top.
“The media are Donald Trump’s campaign. They are the largest in-kind contributor,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant. “And it’s a symbiotic relationship. Trump is good for ratings, he’s good for clicks, he’s good for views.”
Trump said that about a week ago, he got a call from Lorne Michaels, the producer of “Saturday Night Live,” asking him to host the show.
Political candidates — from Sarah Palin to Hillary Clinton — have appeared on “Saturday Night Live” during brief bits, with Clinton getting a turn this month. But few have hosted the entire show. Republican Steve Forbes hosted in 1996 and Democrat Al Sharpton hosted in 2003, but neither led the field. When Sharpton appeared, some NBC affiliates chose not to air the episode, out of concern that equal time rules would kick in.
Trump has hosted “Saturday Night Live” once before, in 2004 when he was plugging his show, “The Apprentice,” which also aired in NBC.
“It’s great to be here at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but, I’ll completely honest, it’s even better for ‘Saturday Night Live’ that I’m here,” Trump said during the opening monologue. “Nobody’s bigger than me. Nobody’s better than me. I’m a ratings machine.”