When the country tunes into the first primetime Republican presidential debate tonight, the cameras will quickly zoom to Donald Trump, whose dominant lead in the polls has earned him a center-stage podium amid the entourage of candidates.
The media’s infatuation with the flamboyant business tycoon is well established by now, and understandably so. He’s outpacing the other 16 GOP candidates, and his flair for discharging stunning proclamations is hard for any clear-thinking journalist to ignore. (John McCain’s “not a war hero. … I like people who weren’t captured” and Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”) The public, meanwhile, can’t get enough. People search his name online more than any other Republican candidate, according to Google, which means more traffic for news outlets.
But tonight offers a unique opportunity for the press: to cover the rest of the candidates.
Presidential debates are historically a moment when the public begins to give more serious consideration to the White House contenders, their views, plans, character and temperaments. Only going into tonight’s debate, the public has been relatively deprived of information about the other nine candidates who made the cut to participate. Stories on Trump account for more than half of campaign coverage on all three network newscasts combined, even including that on Hillary Clinton, according to an analysis by Andrew Tyndall, whose watchdog blog was recently cited by the Associated Press.
“He sucks a lot of the oxygen out of the room,” says Rem Rieder, USA Today’s editor at large and media columnist. “It sometimes seems like–it doesn’t seem; it is–all Trump all the time.”
No one’s arguing that Trump should be ignored. He is the frontrunner, after all. Plus, his surge is impacting the rest of the line-up and his popularity among the GOP electorate poses a serious challenge for the party. But the chances of him becoming the 45th president are slim, most strategists believe.
John Sides, a George Washington University political science professor and Washington Post contributor, says the saturation coverage of Trump is the engine behind his early success. In the run-up to the primaries, voters have little to go on outside of whose name is in the headlines. What they deserve is a chance to learn more about the other contenders.
USA Today’s Rieder says the media needs to find the middle ground. “I don’t think there’s a rulebook that says you should fake left and go right, that there are exact steps to take,” he says. “It’s trying to balance it the best you can.”
Tonight, journalists have a chance for redemption.