Remember the billions of free coverage Donald Trump got last election? He's getting it again

MSNBC and others are already showing that in 2020, they’ll make money off Trump while pretending to advocate against him

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The oft-quoted figure was $2 billion, but it went up to $5 billion by the end of the 2016 election, depending upon the shrillness of the media outlet in question.

Those billions were how much “free media” Donald Trump supposedly received from ratings-hungry news outlets early in the last presidential election campaign.

Along with Russia, James Comey and Wikileaks, this phenomenon was pointed to regularly in election postmortems as a primary cause for Trump’s election. One of the people who complained the loudest was Hillary Clinton, in her astounding book-length denial exercise called What Happened. She wrote:

Their real problem is they can’t bear to face their own role in helping elect Trump, from providing him free airtime to giving my emails three times more coverage than all the issues affecting people’s lives combined.

Hillary left out the part where she, too got about $3.24 billion in free media, which is called “earned media” when we’re using it to describe politicians we like. Incidentally TV stations tend to give away “earned media” to, precisely, the politicians who can afford to pay for their own PR – frontrunners and incumbents especially.

The president’s ability to summon airtime at will (just bomb someone!) is one of the major electoral advantages of incumbency. The politicians who are really at the short end of the stick here aren’t the Clintons of the world, but the so-called “fringe” pols, the Dennis Kuciniches and Ron Pauls, the Andrew Yangs and Mike Gravels. Even Bernie Sanders got 23 times less TV coverage than Trump, a challenger whose intramural party revolt was a very similar news narrative to the Trump tale.

Still, getting the media to cover you is part of the challenge of running for office in modern America, and Trump was good at it. It’s not an optimal way to run a country. We’d likely be better off with a super-short election process that included a handful of publicly funded candidate forums.

But this is the system we have, and after 2016, news orgs pledged to stop milking it for cash. Word spread that we were out of the helping-Trump business. There would be no more broadcasts of empty podiums awaiting the appearance of the Orange One.

Neither, we were told, would there be any more chummy sessions where people like Mika and Joe slobbered on the Ratings God.

As we carried the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” banner, we would no longer give Trump free PR. In fact, Trump content would be wrapped in so much negative editorializing that video couldn’t redound to his benefit even by accident. He would no longer be permitted even argument or rhetoric, as cable crawls said things like TRUMP CALLS OBAMA FOUNDER OF ISIS (HE’S NOT).

The moralizing about changing our tune and being true to “history’s judgment” was clearly fake. This was just a way to allow the networks to cover Trump more, while conversely giving even less attention to non-Trump topics.

The big giveaway story this week involved an exchange on insults between Trump and Joe Biden. The TL:DR version is that Biden called Trump an “existential threat” to America, while Trump called Biden a “sleepy guy,” a “dummy,” and a “loser,” who was “slower” and “mentally weak,” unable to keep up with a real campaign schedule.

He, Trump, said he was anxious to run against Biden, because “I like running against mentally weak people.”

Everyone who went through the campaign last year knew what was up. This is a formula that Trump loves. He’s blasting Biden in tweets and appearances because campaigning is easier than governing.

Insult exchanges with bumbling, foot-in-mouth ex-Vice Presidents is a natural playing field for this politician. He’s better at it than everyone in politics, as he showed last time, when he devoured the likes of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton by luring them down into the deep waters of sophomoric, WWE-style taunting. 

If you’re on the level about not using these exchanges to make a quick buck, and you’re truly interested in abandoning BS to cover real news – the Midwest floods, a big telecom merger, Hong Kong riots, etc. – you’d just blow off this story.

It’s not even relevant as campaign news. We’re a year away from the general election, and acting like there are only two candidates left in the race benefits exactly two people, both of whom can afford to buy their own PR: Biden and Trump.

All the major papers and TV outlets still gave it significant play. The New York Times and the Washington Post both out it on the front page. The Times head read:

Trump and Biden Get Personal in Iowa Skirmish

An “Existential Threat” and a “Sleepy Guy”

The Post went with:

In Iowa, a Feud Gains Strength


The cable stations went gaga. How do you justify jumping to this format again, after you took so much deserved abuse for riding it to huge profits the last time? Easy: pretend you’re not doing it, and blame what you are doing on Donald Trump.

Brian Williams on MSNBC led off his “11th Hour” newscast with the story. He began in amusing fashion:

And if you looked at cable news today, and all good citizens should…

Right. You didn’t just watch an Oil of Olay commercial, or an ad for the new Infiniti GX50 (they both sponsored the program). Watching cable TV is citizenship. He went on:

If you looked at cable news today, and all good citizens should, you

might think the general election is set and Donald Trump is straight up

running for re-election against the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.

But that is certainly not the case.  Donald Trump sounds like he’s running against

Joe Biden, but there are a whole slew of Democrats, dozens of them, who beg

to differ. 

So it’s not our fault, or even Joe Biden’s fault, that we’re doing a story that sounds like a general election story at least 12 months early. It’s Trump’s fault.

Trump, says Williams, wants you to believe there aren’t “dozens” of other Democratic candidates in the field. So Trump’s the one who wants you to ignore the other Democratic candidates.

Williams then proceeds to ignore the other Democratic candidates.

He goes on to tell the story about the exchange of insults, and in doing so, shows about 1:06 of footage of Biden railing against Trump from three separate Iowa locations.

MSNBC as of last summer was charging about $13,550 for 30-second ads, so you can do the math. This is footage that’s probably worth about thirty grand.

Is it important, informative news? Meh. It’s Biden calling Trump an “existential threat” and complaining that “it’s the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and he’s tweeting about Bette Midler?”

We spent all of the summer of 2016 hearing Democrats blast Trump’s negatives, we’ve heard little else on MSNBC and CNN since. Is it news? It’s definitely boring. Also, again, Biden is running for office. If Andrew Yang needs to pay to call Trump names, so should the front-runner.

The network then flips to a series of clips of Trump whaling away at Joe. The network gives Trump about 1:11 of time to hammer Biden, to say things like:

He said my name so many times that people couldn’t stand it anymore… Sleepy guy…

Even if the people that he’s running against, they’re saying where is he?  What happened?  He makes his stance in Iowa, once every two weeks and then he mentions my name 74 times in one speech.  I don’t now. 

That reminds me of crooked Hillary.  She did the same thing.

Williams then interrupts, and, looking somber, says Trump later switched to the “hard stuff”:

I heard Biden, who’s a loser….

I have to tell you, he’s a different guy. He looks different than he used to.  He acts different than he used to. He’s even slower than he used to be.

I’d rather run against… Biden than anybody. I think he’s the weakest mentally. And I like running against people that are weak mentally. I think Joe is the weakest up here.

In case you missed the “hard stuff,” MSNBC even made sure to show the pictures of Trump with the words BIDEN and LOSER in the Chryon:


If that isn’t bad enough, MSNBC then switched to a gross-looking under-shot of Biden’s ashen face as reporters in Iowa accosted him.

Again in case you missed anything, they put subtitles on screen so you could see exactly all the Trump-originated accusations being lobbed at Biden.

“The president raised questions about your age!” they shouted. “He raised questions about whether or not you have the stamina to run for president.”

Then came my personal favorite, the one where the unnamed reporter appeared to agree with Trump about Biden’s “lighter” schedule:

Reporter: There’s been a lot of questions about your schedule, and that it’s been a little lighter than some of the other candidates…

Biden (croaking, in hoarse voice and trademark weird smile): Look at him and look at me and answer the question.

Reporter: You answer the question! Will you please answer the question?

Biden: It’s self-evident.

This was classic Trump.

He did this over and over again in the 2015-2016 race, where he’d lob an outrageous insult to an opponent, get the press to corner that candidate and repeat the accusation on his behalf, and then cash in when the opponent inevitably validates Trump’s criticism with some idiotic attempt to play this game.

The famous example was Jeb Bush, whom Trump assailed as being soft on Mexico because of his Mexican wife, then taunted for needing his “mommy” after Jeb made a joint appearance on Good Morning America with Barbara Bush.

Soon after, in a debate exchange, Bush insisted he’d “won the lottery” when he was born and looked up at his mother, who was “the strongest woman I know.”

“She should be running,” Trump quipped.

Bush was compared to Michael Dukakis by pundits after that exchange, which is basically fatal in presidential campaign coverage (he was also called a “shrinking violet”).

This is a technique Trump learned from WWE. If the heel wrestler taunts the hero, and the hero doesn’t fight back well, the crowd will turn on the hero and start cheering the bad guy, every time. Trump steamrolled a series of opponents using this very tactic, and it was often the press that joined in the fun with him.

It was the same with this story, only the rationalizing got even worse.

Williams after this exchange there invited a panel of overpaid talking heads to discuss the meaningless insult trade: MSNBC reporter Garrett Haake, A.B. Stoddard of Real Clear Politics, and veteran campaign cliché-creator John Heilemann.

The hilarious part involved the intro with Haake, in which Williams first doubled down on blaming Trump for the exchange. What did he, Haake, think of the idea that we’re already in election season?

Haake explained that what we watched was not a pointless exchange of insults that probably favored Trump, but, actually, a planned and perhaps brilliant maneuver by the Biden campaign. Asked by Williams if audiences could be “forgiven” for thinking it’s already the general election, Haake responded:

Yes, Brian, that’s absolutely right. And that’s exactly the way the Biden campaign would like this to be. Look, Joe Biden would not be running for president against to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. He really does see Donald Trump as an existential threat. 

And when you are the frontrunner in the position that he’s in both in the early states and nationally, the only thing you can really do is punch up.

Translation: I’m going to repeat Biden’s talking points verbatim as if they’re my own thoughts, and then I’m going to argue that we’re doing this to help Democrats.

He went on to brag about how skillfully Biden had manipulated the media, including his own channel:

And what you saw the Biden campaign do today was essentially set a trap for Donald Trump. They released the excerpts of his speech that the Vice President did not intend to give for another 12 hours. About 6:00 this morning, let all of us talk about it on the cable news all day long, and get it into Donald Trump’s head.

Haake here is bragging that Biden got “all of us” on cable to babble “all day long” about campaign talking points just by handing out the transcript of his speech 12 hours early. Ingenious! Brian, we’re such tools, we’ll blather on about anything, for free, if you give us a list of talking points in advance…

Haake concluded:

The President responded exactly as you might expect, coming after the Vice President and allowing this back and forth split screen image which lets Joe Biden stand then head and shoulders, at least for this one day, over 22 other candidates who would like to take his place and be the Democratic nominee. 

We’ve now moved to explaining that MSNBC isn’t ignoring the other 20-odd candidates out of principle, but simply because Joe Biden demonstrated such skill in manipulating the press that he got to stand “head and shoulders” above the field while Trump called him a slow, old, mentally weak loser with a light schedule.

And that, Brian, is why we showed that painful, ratings-generating footage!

Haake wrapped by saying Democratic voters just want someone who can “end the Donald Trump presidency,” and Biden might be the candidate who’ll get the chance to do that because:

OK, if Donald Trump is worried about this guy, then maybe there’s something to this. And that’s what we saw played out in Iowa today.

This is disingenuous. In my experience, when Trump vomits on a political opponent, it’s very likely he really thinks that’s going to work for him in the end. He did it to “Low Energy” Jeb Bush (check out Jimmy Kimmel loving the characterization), “Little” Marco Rubio, “pathological” “child molester” Ben Carson, “Lyin’” Ted Cruz, and a host of others.

When he’s at least a little nervous about the opponent, he lays off the nasty nicknames. Robert Mueller, for instance, only got “highly conflicted Bob Mueller.”

This is all a game. It’s not about politics, but money.

Trump’s brand of taunt-and-sneer campaigning, which is basically indistinguishable from pro wrestling, makes bank. The networks love it and once admitted to this.

Today they still love it, but they try to pretend otherwise, cloaking themselves in sanctimony and pretend-advocacy as they do. This isn’t politics. It’s low-end consumer business – mental cigarettes. Don’t fall for it.

Earlier: Welcome to ‘Behind the News’