Editorial: What the Trump free media says about the media

As we sit down to write this editorial at lunchtime Monday, we pause briefly to check CNN's mobile app: The first two headlines include the photo and name of Donald Trump.

All told, four Trump stories appear on CNN's app Home Page. Hillary Clinton shows up twice. Bernie Sanders, once. Ted Cruz and John Kasich, on the eve of today's primaries in Arizona and Utah, are nowhere to be found.

The Trump dominance isn't limited to cable television. We check the presidential election page of The Associated Press mobile app, and here's the count from the top 22 stories (more than one candidate makes it into some headlines): Trump, 13; Clinton, 5; Cruz, 2; Sanders, 2; Kasich, 1.

The Digital Age has brought a revolution in American journalism and not all of it is healthy. The obsession with Trump is a dramatic example, and the implications go beyond this year's presidential elections.

Election coverage in the Daily Herald is far from perfect, but we always have believed that we have an obligation to the public, never mind the candidates, to try to balance not just the tone of our coverage but also the attention we give the candidates. We try to give all credible candidates in a race about the same amount of coverage. It's not an exact science, but we're at least mindful of this obligation. But increasingly, our colleagues in television and on the web, in particular, seem to have lost sight of that responsibility.

A recent analysis by mediaQuant, which tracks spending in advertising, assessed the equivalent in "free media" that the presidential candidates have received.

The assessment, as reported by The New York Times, is stunning and troubling: Trump, according to the mediaQuant calculations, has received the equivalent of $1.9 billion in advertising via free media on all platforms. That compares to $746 million for Clinton, $321 million for Sanders, $313 million for Cruz and $38 million for Kasich.

There's a lot of talk about the dangers of unlimited spending by political action committees, but not nearly enough talk about the dangers of irresponsibly uneven coverage by our news media.

How has this changed from the iconic days of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow?

In those days, CBS News was a mission-oriented loss leader for the CBS network. It cared about the ratings of the evening news, to be sure, but it only guessed at how much any single story affected it. And the stature the news department brought the network was valued as much as any revenue it created.

Today, the web enables us in the media to measure the traffic every story generates. And from that, we know that if we put Trump's photo next to a story or his name in a headline, it will drive readership.

If that is the lone measure, controversy means more than substance, sizzle more than steak.

To our colleagues we say: Audience isn't everything. Duty matters.

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