A former cable host says the industry utterly caved to the candidate.
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.
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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