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The Trump Triumph of Earned Media

The numbers show Donald Trump snuffed out his GOP presidential competitors for nightly network TV news coverage. The reason was Trump’s skill at earning free coverage, not media bias.

The numbers show Donald Trump snuffed out his GOP presidential competitors for nightly network TV news coverage. The reason was Trump’s skill at earning free coverage, not media bias.

The power of earned media has never been more evident than in the 2016 presidential campaign by Donald Trump. However, one media analyst believes that Trump is getting an extra boost because of news bias.

While most other presidential aspirants have spent millions, Trump has spent relatively little on paid advertising. Trump's bombastic, no-holds-barred speaking style, combined with punchy, pungent tweets, have kept him in the limelight – and perhaps sucked the oxygen out of his opponents’ campaigns.

The Media Research Center, a politically conservative news content organization based in Virginia, analyzed the evening coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC from January through October last year and found Trump received 116 minutes of air time from January through July and 266 minutes from August through October. Trump’s share of coverage of the GOP presidential race in the latter part of 2015 exceeded 56 percent.

From August to October, Jeb Bush garnered the next highest share of coverage, with 57 minutes, or around 12 percent. He got a higher share from January to July with 72 minutes, equaling 22.8 percent.

Scott Walker, who dropped out of the race after a couple of months, earned more minutes from January to October than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the only remaining candidates within shouting distance of Trump.

Some candidates’ exposure on network nightly news was clocked in seconds. Rick Santorum racked up 111 seconds of coverage from January to July, then slipped to just 33 seconds from August to October. If you blinked, you might have missed George Pataki’s candidacy, which earned around a minute of coverage. Jim Gilmore, who didn't end his candidacy until last week, received zero coverage.

Media Research Center analysts blamed the disparity on liberal news media bias. They claim the bloated coverage for Trump was intended to winnow the GOP field and, in particular, squeeze out politically conservative candidates.

The data produced by the Media Research Center seems to tell another story. The “establishment” candidates, such as Chris Christie, John Kasich and Lindsey Graham, didn’t fare any better than their more outspokenly conservative colleagues. In fact, Ben Carson received 55 minutes of coverage late last year, which was double the coverage of Carly Fiorina and Rubio and nine times the coverage of Christie and Kasich.

The story told by the data is that Trump stole the show. Using insults, talk show appearances, provocative proposals and profanity, Trump commanded the airwaves. He was a reliable daily sound bite. And he was willing to talk any time of day or night.

Trump’s emergence as the Republican frontrunner is a story in itself, but he added a story hook with virtually every appearance he made. In the world of strategic communications, we call that earned media, and Trump got a lot of it.

Bush got some of his coverage by bashing Trump. Carson earned much of his by inching up momentarily to Trump.

You can blast Trump for manipulating the media, but you have to compliment the guy for doing it so well and so often.

Earned media kudos also should go to Vice President Joe Biden who collected 110 minutes of network TV nightly news coverage from last August to October as he toyed publicly with entering the Democratic presidential race. As the Media Research Center grumbled, that’s a lot more coverage for a candidacy that never materialized than for GOP candidates who were out on the political stump. And the reason for Biden’s success – his skill at earning free media coverage.