The first Republican primary debate for the 2016 presidential campaign will be televised live tonight by Fox. The event has been criticized for allowing only ten candidates to participate, a strict cutoff which reduces the exposure of the seven other candidates that have officially declared to be in the 2016 race. Among members of the GOP, another major criticism has been that Donald Trump is allowed on the debate stage. This, of course, aligns with the rules for the debate — only candidates polling in the top ten are allowed to join the primetime slot. Trump is polling in first place, therefore he will occupy center stage.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, one of the ten candidates that will be participating in the debate tonight, blames the media for Trump’s rise. “You all covered him with about a billion dollars’ worth news of media,” Paul said on CBS This Morning, according to The Hill. “I mean, the news is what the news is. But you have to admit that there’s been an extraordinary amount of attention paid to one person. And I think anybody’s numbers would rise with that amount of attention, so our job is to break through.” Paul’s criticism is warranted. Trump has dominated political news coverage in the weeks following his campaign announcement, and every one of his controversial statements seems to have corresponded with an increase in his polling numbers.
There’s no way to accurately measure how much of an impact media coverage has on elections, but it would also be irresponsible to claim that it doesn't have an influence.
The relationship between the media and the outcome of presidential elections has existed since at least 1960, when Kennedy and Nixon squared off in the nation’s first televised debate. Media coverage gives candidates attention, and televised debates give them a platform to establish their views and policies in front of a massive audience. By continuously covering Trump, media companies give him an advantage. It’s the reason the Huffington Post decided to make a political statement by moving all Trump-related items to the Entertainment section of the site.
In Trump’s case, it’s difficult to tell whether his status at the top of the polls is an accurate reflection of voter interest or an attempt to capitalize on a dominant media presence. Media companies like Fox News are the ones writing articles about Trump, conducting the presidential polls and hosting the debate. That’s not to suggest that they’re rigging the statistics (Trump’s rise has been documented by companies like CNN and Fox News as well as organizations like Quinnipiac University), but there has to be some correlation. Fox executives understand that Trump is popular and entertaining, and his presence in the debate will only boost ratings. While Fox has always operated under the guise of pushing a conservative political agenda, revenue is always the most important factor.
Whether it’s inspired by perpetual media coverage or not, Trump’s popularity reflects the attitude of many voters who are dissatisfied with the status quo in Washington. Paul’s criticism of Trump and the media suggests that he believes he’s not getting enough attention despite running on a similar platform. Paul advocates implementing term limits for Congressional representatives, and he’s always emphasized that he’s not a career politician (although in many ways that’s been his family’s business). The only redeeming quality of tonight’s debate is that it will put at least ten of the GOP’s candidates on an equal level. Trump will be center stage, but candidates like Paul will have the chance to challenge him with realistic policies and rational debate. If voters are smart, the poll results might look a little different next time around.
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