SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
There's a debate taking place now in political and media circles. It's about what responsibility the media - and that includes David Folkenflik, who we're about to welcome, and me I suppose - what responsibility we bear for the rise of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has certainly enjoyed the lion's share of coverage since the very beginning of the race for president. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has both observed and participated in the debate. David, thanks for being with us.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Of course.
SIMON: What are the arguments on opposing sides?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, on one side, you've got a camp that says, look, Trump has gotten so vastly disproportionate the amount of coverage that there's no way that it doesn't swamp the ability of other candidates - particularly other Republicans candidates - to make an affirmative case. The New York Times had a consulting group do an estimate. They said that he got about $1.9 billion worth of free media; that is, it would've cost him that much money to take out ads that much. And surveys of cable news, of broadcast news and other ways of measuring have said Trump has just gotten vastly disproportionate amount.
On the other side, Trump's - has great negatives, enormous negatives, a lot of people say they simply won't vote for him. So if he's gotten media, maybe it hasn't done him so much good. And I think there's been an overestimation of how much the press can shape coverage and people's decisions. You know, trust in the press, polls show - from Pew and other places - have gone down significantly over the years. Maybe the press doesn't have that much ability to frame people's decisions.
SIMON: And Megyn Kelly, Anderson Cooper, Chris Wallace - they've been plenty tough on him, haven't they?
FOLKENFLIK: I think you've seen moments, episodic moments, of toughness, but I think a lot of the coverage, the vast majority of the coverage in fact, has been reactive. He can create a cycle in coverage and gin up a controversy in less than 140 characters on Twitter and force what's seemingly the entire press corps to bend to his will and ignore other stories.
You know, if you think about other candidates, Marco Rubio - the Florida senator and former candidate - you know, his use of state party credit cards in Florida, his personal finances, which are a jumble, got so much more coverage than all those lawsuits against Trump and those four bankruptcies, how Trump has used power in state capitals and city halls.
You know, he's never held an elective office. This is what reporters should be looking at it, and I don't think we really understand it.
SIMON: I also remember last summer there was so much skepticism in the establishment press, if you please, about Donald Trump 'cause he'd never run for office - much less held - that his private life was tabloid fodder and everybody knew he had a temper.
FOLKENFLIK: Look, I think that's fair enough and, you know, you can't simply say that the press whiffed on this. I mean, the Republican establishment entirely whiffed on this. The political class by and large missed this, and this is what they do for a living. But looking back, you can certainly say this guy had nearly 100 percent name recognition. He was a celebrity with access to vast wealth, and he has a personality that's seemingly impervious to embarrassment.
And he had just come off the birther controversy, which discredited him in the eyes of so many people but at the same time, gained him something of a following. This was something where a lot of reporting, as Evan Osnos did for The New Yorker, might have revealed the fact that he did have something of a following and there might be fertile ground to plow there.
SIMON: David, do you wind up on either side of this debate?
FOLKENFLIK: I do. I'm not at an extreme, but I do think that Donald Trump is a self-created creature. But the media has feasted on his spectacle and he wouldn't live without the attention. He's repaid the favor by attacking the press, but that's generated more reactive coverage. It illustrates this kind of broken cycle that goes of itself. I think the media largely missed his rise.
It did not understand the phenomenon of Trump or that he was also tapping into something real. And I think it enabled him by giving him seemingly unlimited air time. Anchors were happy to have him on the line at all times. You saw these moments where his rallies would be carried from, you know, stern to aft just to make sure that it captured - they didn't know what he would say next.
Sometimes they captured him waiting to attend a rally even when other candidates were already speaking. And it's not been surrounded by original reporting, the accountability reporting that I think we require of the press. The press is supposed to equip people to act as citizens and not just consumers of programming that happens to be news. And I don't think that happened here for at least quite a while during this political season.
SIMON: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.