Photo by Glenn Zucman

Great Television: Trump and the Morality of the Screen

A study by the Harvard Shorenstein Center showed that in his first 100 days as president, Donald Trump was the topic of 41 percent of national news coverage, three times the coverage presidents usually receive during that time period. At the big three cable channels, MSNBC, Fox, and CNN, combined audiences are up 33 percent since 2016, and he is one main reason. Referring to Trump, an advertising executive from Anheuser Busch told NPR that the presidential campaign really “popped” and that it “was a fun one to watch.” He is “a human breaking-news event,” a figure who seemingly “built his entire campaign around nothing so much as his singular ability to fill cable news’s endless demand for engaging content.”

I’ve spent two decades studying rhetoric, media, and politics, and the Trump phenomenon gives me pause. Trump is a bully, a racist, sexist, xenophobe—and news organizations are riding his ascendance to the bank. Do news organizations still operate as the Fourth Estate, as checks on executive power, as protectors of democratic values, or is that era is over? Trump is a test.

Earning media attention is Trump’s obsession and his craft. He reads and watches stories about himself, sends journalists feedback, calls TV shows, and reviews TV coverage to see what chyrons appear when he is on screen. As he explained in Art of the Deal, he works the press for mutual benefit:

if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you….people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.

Well before The Apprentice rescued his career, Trump was more than a subject for TV coverage; he was a calculating character on TV. Like any good reality TV character, Trump moves “between the pariah and the icon, the hated and the worshipped“, the face and the heel, because, loved or hated, his dramatic potential is currency.

And it’s not just Trump’s dramatic potential that interests the news media — it’s the entire phenomenon of big-time politics, including media coverage of it. Defending his choice to hire staffers Trump fired during the 2016 campaign, CNN President Jeff Zucker (who had signed Trump to The Apprentice in his old job at NBC) said he made the choice because fired Trump staffers were “characters in a drama.” Zucker correctly predicted that hiring Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski would become “a cable-news story about cable news.” That is, Zucker viewed CNN as part of the story of Trump, not merely an entity reporting about Trump. During the Republican National Convention, Trump called surrogate Jeffrey Lord while he was on air with CNN talking to Anderson Cooper — itself remarkable — to complain about CNN’s coverage of his candidacy. Lord then relayed the complaints to Cooper, on air. When Lord later told him the story, Zucker grabbed him by the lapels of his suit coat and exclaimed, “That is great television!”

Trump’s value to news organizations is the open secret of the Trump phenomenon. Though many in the press despise him, “they love how easy he makes their jobs.” The same can be said for media buyers, who leverage Trumpian intrigue and suspense to sell advertising. Programs that Trump watches and talks about hike their ad rates. TV producers make programming choices in the hopes of provoking a tweet or rant. Singling out CNN or Morning Joe for “fake news” makes news. MSNBC President Phil Griffin recently said he wished Trump complained about MSNBC “because it’s like a promo for CNN all the time.”

To be sure, Trump’s bigotry and hyperbole do not make for a smooth presidency. Not all of its problems are a matter of public relations.

But it is time to stop viewing the Trump phenomenon as a story solely about electoral politics.

In the presidential election of 2016, Trump won, and so did the morality of the screen. This synergy between candidate and medium, though not entirely new in politics, is a far cry from the beginnings of TV news, when TV networks were dependent upon the government for access to public airwaves, and thus more accountable to democratic values. The success of cable channels changed the equation—the press is not so much pro-democracy as it is pro-media.

It is not possible for news organizations to act as observers from a position “outside” politics. News organizations create and participate in dramas about politics. What is interesting is that TV executives no longer hide their motives.

Trump raises the concern that future politicians will similarly commandeer attention in ways news organizations find irresistibly lucrative. This is not to say that ratings and profit motive can only benefit a Trump-type politician. His constant need for media attention undercuts him regularly, and his future in politics and business is uncertain.

But news networks survive only by making money, and there is no reason to think that their profit motive will serve the needs of the American people.