CNN gathered together all of the Republican presidential candidates at the Reagan Library for a highly touted debate and could hardly think to ask them about anything except Donald Trump.
By one count, 44 percent of the questions touched on Trump. Why even pretend it’s going to be a debate? Just bill it as a seminar on the worldview and foibles of Donald Trump, with occasional diversions into matters of greater public import.
The CNN event was typical of a press that has lost its mind, not to mention its dignity, over Donald Trump. The media follow him with the obsessive interest of a wide-eyed fangirl who’s fallen for the latest boy band. Everything about him is pored over and dissected, and he is treated as the biggest thing to happen in American life since the arrival of the Beatles or the moon landing.
A meteor could strike the Earth, and the first question that much of the media would think to ask is, “Yes, but how will it affect Donald Trump’s poll numbers?”
There’s no doubt that Trump deserves serious coverage. He is at the top of the polls. He’s entertaining. He represents an intriguingly populist, heterodox element within the GOP. But none of this explains or justifies him becoming the missing Malaysian plane of American politics.
A couple of weeks after the first debate in August, a CNN analysis found that Trump got more coverage on the nightly news than all of his competitors combined. Trump got 36 minutes and 30 second on the broadcasts. Ben Carson, who would get the biggest poll boost from the first debate, got all of 11 seconds.
CNN itself has been a prime offender. According to a Wall Street Journal report, between his announcement in June and mid-September, Trump had been the subject of more than 2,100 CNN reports, roughly twice as many stories as those of the next most reported-on candidate, Jeb Bush.
It’s not just that Trump dominates the coverage himself. Whenever another candidate gets on the air, he or she is invariably asked questions about the latest controversies about Trump (and some candidates have foolishly played the game by attacking Trump to try to get attention). Pope Francis will be lucky not to be repeatedly asked about Trump’s favorite Bible verse during his visit here.
The cable networks treat Trump campaign rallies like a car chase. They go to them live and follow them to the end. The rallies are considered theoretically newsworthy, although they are always the same — Trump talks about his poll numbers, about building a wall and about Jeb Bush’s low energy, over and over again.
Ben Carson should be considering suing for equal time. He, too, is an outsider who has struck a nerve and rocketed up in the polls, but he gets a fraction of the coverage of Trump. No one consistently live-broadcasts his events. No one badgers all the other candidates to address every little thing he says.
The difference is that Donald Trump rates. So the self-styled gatekeepers of our politics, who take themselves so seriously, are happy to slum it with him.
Any other candidate would be delighted to get Trump’s wall-to-wall coverage. But it comes with a downside. We are a culture of intense, and transient, interests. The line between being the hottest thing in the country and yesterday’s news is thinner than ever. With every moment that Trump is on the screen, we get a little closer to the moment when people might get sick of him being on the screen. Even Miley Cyrus probably thinks he is overexposed.
If it’s too much to expect the media to give up its Trump obsession, it can at least vow never again to ask a candidate not named Donald Trump about Donald Trump. The other contenders don’t deserve to be made bit players in a media-driven reality show.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.