My friends in the TV news business are in a state of despair about Donald Trump, even as their bosses in the boardroom are giddy over what he’s doing for their once sagging ratings.
“It feels like it’s over,” one old friend from my television days told me recently. Any hope of practicing real journalism on TV is really, finally finished. “Look, we’ve always done a lot of stupid shit to get ratings. But now it’s like we’ve just given up and literally handed over control hoping he’ll save us. It’s pathetic, and I feel like hell.” Said another friend covering the presidential campaign for cable news, “I am swilling antidepressants trying to figure out what to do with my life when this is over.”
I’ve been there, and I sure am sympathetic. When I left cable news in 2010 after 14 years as a correspondent and anchor for NBC News and CNN, this kind of ratings pressure was a big reason why (and I don’t take for granted that I had the luxury of being able to walk away). I was not so interested in night-after-night coverage of Michael Jackson’s death or Britney Spears’ latest breakdown—topics that were “breaking news” at the time. And yes, as my friend reminded me, we did “stupid shit” to get the numbers up when it came to political coverage then, too. (Anyone remember the correspondent’s hologram that appeared on set during CNN’s 2008 election coverage?) But it was nothing like what we’re seeing today.
I really would like to blame Trump. But everything he is doing is with TV news’ full acquiescence. Trump doesn’t force the networks to show his rallies live rather than do real reporting. Nor does he force anyone to accept his phone calls rather than demand that he do a face-to-face interview that would be a greater risk for him. TV news has largely given Trump editorial control. It is driven by a hunger for ratings—and the people who run the networks and the news channels are only too happy to make that Faustian bargain. Which is why you’ll see endless variations of this banner, one I saw all three cable networks put up in a single day: “Breaking news: Trump speaks for first time since Wisconsin loss.” In all these scenes, the TV reporter just stands there, off camera, essentially useless. The order doesn’t need to be stated. It’s understood in the newsroom: Air the Trump rallies live and uninterrupted. He may say something crazy; he often does, and it’s always great television.
This must be such a relief for the TV executives managing a business in decline, suffering from a thousand cuts from social media and other new platforms. Trump arrived on the scene as a kind of manna from hell. I admit I have been surprised by the public candor about this bounty. A “beaming” Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, told New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg, “These numbers are crazy—crazy.” But if their bosses are frank about the great ratings, some of my friends left at the cable networks are in various degrees of denial. “Give me a break,” one told me. “You can’t put this on us. Reality has changed because of technology. Look at the White House. They’re basically running their own news organization. They bypass us every day. We’re just trying to keep up.”
And then there’s this attempt to put the best face on things, which is the most universal comment I hear: “At least this shows how much we still matter.”
But do we really matter—except as a free-media platform for a presidential candidate who almost every journalist knows could destroy the country if he ever got into the White House?
It’s OK to admit it. The bosses are saying it out loud. Take CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves on the Trump phenomenon: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” This is a statement of the obvious to anyone in TV news. My wonder at it stems from how long we’ve managed to treat this as our dirty little secret, that thing we all know: that what’s damn good for CBS is damn bad for American journalism.
The 800-pound gorillas of TV news are gone. When I was the White House correspondent at NBC and Tom Brokaw was anchor, the reporters were protected. Great TV journalists like Tom had enormous influence; they could and did push back on commercial decisions that affected our coverage. When another one of those powerhouses, Meet the Press host Tim Russert, was alive, he used to tell us: “Beware the pamphleteers.” By that, he meant avoid a story that’s presented to you fully baked. Now that’s impossible; there’s no way to allow TV reporters to apply the filter of their journalism to a story like Trump. And more to the point, there’s little genuine interest in letting them.
We all know how it started. Early on, even before he was the front-runner, TV news was giving Trump far more attention than other candidates and far more than he deserved. The coverage itself has helped create him, and has exposed those systemic weaknesses in television journalism. Based on data from the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive and analysis by Republican pollster Jan van Lohuizen and analytics expert Luke Thompson, Trump gets about six appearances on the major networks for roughly every one his rivals Ted Cruz or John Kasich get. In fact, Trump’s exposure has been three times greater than that of Cruz and Kasich combined. He received 50 percent of the exposure when there were more than a dozen candidates—a percentage that has only grown. Of course, by now, you’ve all also read the figure of close to $2 billion worth of free media the New York Times cited for Trump’s TV bonanza. And that story was back in March. No campaign’s advertising budget can compete.
So yes, I believe Trump’s candidacy is largely a creation of a TV media that wants him, or needs him, to be the central character in this year’s political drama. And it’s not just the network and cable executives driving it. The TV anchors and senior executives who don’t deliver are mercilessly ousted. The ones who do deliver are lavishly rewarded. I know from personal experience that it is common practice for TV anchors to have substantial bonuses written into their contracts if they hit ratings marks. With this 2016 presidential soap opera, they are almost surely hitting those marks. So, we get all Trump, all the time.
It is not just the wall-to-wall coverage of Trump. It’s the openness with which some are reveling in his attention. It’s the effort, conscious or not, to domesticate and pretty him up, to make him appear less offensive than he really is, and to practice a false objectivity or equivalence in the coverage. Here, journalism across all platforms—corporate, as well as publicly funded—is guilty.
Trump is a chronic liar and dissembler; this has been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. He repeatedly makes factual errors, large and small, in his statements. He is also a misogynist, has a cruel streak (including mocking people’s looks and physical disabilities), has condoned physical violence among his supporters and is shockingly ignorant. To ask journalists to pretend otherwise is akin to asking them to have pretended in the 1960s that George Wallace wasn’t a racist or in the 1950s that Joe McCarthy wasn’t a demagogue. Yet when former ABC anchor and National Public Radio’s legendary pioneer Cokie Roberts dared to state the truth, calling Trump “one of the least qualified candidates ever to make a serious run for the presidency,” NPR took pains to distance itself. The vice president for news issued a memo reminding staff that she is just a “commentator,” not a member of NPR’s staff.
It need not be this way. As Trump finally seemed to close in on the nomination this spring, we saw MSNBC’s Chris Matthews and conservative radio host Charlie Sykes really challenge him rather than allow themselves to be props in his act—something Fox News’ Megyn Kelly had been doing for a while, in spite of Trump’s obsessive attacks. The Washington Post editorial board and two New York Times reporters, Maggie Haberman and David Sanger, have used their time with Trump to probe his knowledge of the issues—and expose his ignorance of even basic matters.
They have shown other journalists how, if they don’t cover Trump less, they can at least cover him better. The greatest contribution TV (or any other) journalists can make going forward is to abandon the laziness that too often comes with just playing referee. Use your knowledge and experience to give context; call a misrepresentation just that; and embrace the difference between objective truth and relative truth. You know what it is. Share it. In this campaign, it has never been so important.
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