NEWARK, New Jersey (AP) — Nobody understands the power of the media on public perception quite like Donald Trump. The former reality television star and tabloid king, who has relied on free news coverage and social media to power his presidential campaign, is uniquely obsessed with how the news media portray his events.
Trump routinely orders news camera operators to pan the crowds at his rallies to show how large the gatherings are — and then chastises them, with disgust, when they fail to obey. His team has experimented with event setups, often placing groups of supporters on risers behind the candidate so that cameras can’t miss the carefully curated faces.
He’s fumed over television reporters doing live shots from empty auditoriums once his supporters have left. And on Twitter, Trump is one of the most prolific media critics, offering his live commentary of cable news reporters and analysts, lashing out at news outlets he feels have treated him unfairly.
The approach is yet another aspect of Trump’s unorthodox campaign. As other candidates and their affiliated super PACs have spent millions of dollars on expensive TV ads, Trump’s campaign has reported spending just $300,000 on a sprinkling of radio ads.
Instead, Trump has logged a whopping 22 hours and 46 minutes of free airtime from May 1 to Dec. 15 on Fox News alone, according to a tally by Media Matters for America, a liberal nonprofit group. That’s more than twice as much as any other candidate and more than Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Senator Marco Rubio combined.
While other candidates spend their time at small-scale retail events interacting one-on-one with voters, Trump’s campaign centerpiece is the large-scale rally, where he is greeted like a rock star by thousands of adoring — and increasingly boisterous — fans. The events are often held in arenas and convention centers, with crowds that dwarf his rivals — a fact he is never shy to point out.
‘‘Nobody gets audiences like I get,’’ Trump said at a rally in Michigan on Monday. ‘‘We broke the record. And I don’t have a guitar, no guitar. Elton John said, ‘You get the biggest crowds in the world for a guy without a guitar.’ ’’
Despite Trump’s off-the-cuff, tangent-filled speeches, the events are meticulously staged. Reporters receive laminated press credentials that include the date and city. At one rally earlier this month, held in a private airplane hangar, Trump staged a dramatic entrance, pulling up to the open venue in his custom 757 as the theme music from the movie ‘‘Air Force One’’ blared on loudspeakers. Entertainment has included live bands and DJs. Kids are sometimes offered free helicopter rides.
The spectacle has created a legion of Trump fans who attend one event after the next to hear the candidate speak.
‘‘This is better than a concert in the ’70s,’’ Trump supporter Bill Kullander said ahead of a recent rally in Des Moines, Iowa — the fourth the 62-year-old had attended so far this year.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., on Monday, staunch supporters mixed with curious onlookers eager to see the Trump show.
‘‘I just want to hear what he has to say,’’ said Jim Rhodes of Belmont, Mich.. ‘‘Am I going to vote for him? Probably not. I like to refer to this as the second comedy show I’ve been to in my lifetime. The first one was Tim Allen. ‘‘
Trump loathes the suggestion that his crowd sizes have anything to do with his celebrity status.
‘‘Look, everywhere I go, I have crowds like this. Everywhere. Everywhere. We have the biggest crowds by far. Because there’s a movement going on, folks,’’ he said at a post-debate rally in Mesa, Ariz., earlier this month. ‘‘This isn’t just like let’s go and have a good time.’’
‘‘We have a message, we have a message and the message is we don’t want to let other people take advantage of us,’’ Trump said.