Nothing but wires and lights in a box…that was the prognosis given to television broadcasting in a speech by Edward R. Murrow 58 years ago unless the medium forgave the wiggling lure of profit for the yeoman’s work of informing and educating the American people. It was possible, Murrow believed, to use this wondrous new technology as a means for fighting back against the sedentary ignorance and indifference of an audience that was already well-fed on a straight sugar diet of talk shows and westerns—to use the television as a window towards understanding the world around us rather than a shield to shelter the American people from the harsh glare of the truth. Murrow had a good deal of faith in the capacity for understanding and maturation of the ordinary American, but was less sanguine about the profit-oriented climate in which television operated. In his opinion, it was the not the viewer, but the television executive and shareholder who was the greatest threat to civic discourse and engagement. “The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants”, Murrow said. “It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests on the top.”
Fast forward to the present day and it would seem in many respects as if Murrow’s fears have been realized and his words left unheeded. The mainstream press—and television news in particular—has become to a large degree a ratings obsessed echo chamber that doesn’t so much report the news as it does regurgitate it into easily consumable, pre-chewed bites for their audience to slurp down like fledgling chickadees. Not since the days of Joe McCarthy’s vituperative red baiting has the American press, as a whole, so fully abdicated their responsibility to the its readers, listeners and viewers as it did during the Donald Trump’s primary campaign.
It is undeniable by anyone without a vested interest in saying otherwise that the political growth and success of Donald Trump would have been all but impossible without being hoisted up on the media’s shoulders for the rest of the nation to see. That is not to say that there weren’t those in the press who were vehement critics of Trump from day one or that all in the media are equally responsible for Trump’s ascension or that his electoral gains aren’t also due to the general anti-establishment populist zeitgeist of our times (see Sanders, Bernie). It’s just pointing out that the mainly positive or neutral and very much politically undeserved coverage that Trump received in the months leading up to the Iowa Caucus and in large measure through the entire primary season was the yeast that gave this doughy despot the means to rise.
As it turns out, the original sin of the news media was going out of their way to blur the line between politics and entertainment and bucking their own standards of campaign reporting in the pursuit of ratings and page views. Normally, as is pointed out by Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at the Harvard Kennedy School, the basic criteria for whether or not a presidential candidate gets media attention centers around two metrics: a) how high up they are in the polls and b) how much money they’re raising. When it came to Trump, the media by-and-large abandoned this philosophy and began lavishing Trump with coverage despite the fact that he had neither the political standing or following to warrant it. At the time of the first GOP primary poll to include Trump at the end of March 2015, the current Republican presidential nominee was in 9th place in an 11 candidate field, garnering a paltry 3.6% of the vote, and was raising no money as he would continue to do for much of the primary season.
Outside of his celebrity, there was no reason to give Donald Trump any campaign coverage during the initial months of the GOP primary. News outlets can justify their coverage in retrospect now that Trump is the GOP nominee and paint his rise as inevitable, but it was nothing of the sort. Proof of this can be seen in the media’s initial treatment of Bernie Sanders, a sitting US Senator with decades of experience and a very passionate base of support in a 3 person race for the Democratic nomination who was given a fraction of the coverage that Trump received, despite the fact that he had a solid fundraising game and, outside of a couple weeks at the end of the summer of 2015, was polling at a higher level than Trump when both races were still in play. There has been plenty of talk this election about conspiracies to keep one candidate or another in or out of the limelight, but the motivation of the press in this instance was as simple as it was brazenly capitalist. Trump consistently got more coverage throughout the primaries and the election because he got eyeballs on TV sets, newspapers and webpages.
That’s it. There was no grand media cabal to exclude one candidate or another from getting coverage. Given the amount of time that Trump spent demonizing journalists and barring them from his campaign events, he certainly wasn’t getting all that airtime most because reporters and broadcasters liked him or identified with his brand of politics. He got it because his bright tangerine mug was good for ratings, which meant he was good for business.
Much like Joe McCarthy before him—who was essentially hand-delivered his celebrity and congressional power after the press picked up his patently mendacious claim made during a Lincoln Day dinner speech in West Virginia that he held in his hand a list of 205 communists who had jobs in the State Department with the knowledge of then Secretary of State Dean Acheson (spoiler alert: it was probably an old laundry list) and plastered it across the front of newspapers all around the country—Donald Trump had no business getting the level of coverage he did in the beginning of his presidential campaign. At least, he had no business getting that coverage if you believe, as Murrow and many good and responsible journalists past and present have, that the object of the press is to allow for the composition of a well-informed and civically engaged electorate.
To be fair, in the past few months broad swaths of print journalists and their online equivalents have acquitted themselves rather well. It seems as if every other day an editorial board of another arch-conservative paper that hasn’t endorsed a Democrat in 100 years (The Cincinnati Enquirer), 148 years (The San Diego Union-Tribune) or ever (The Arizona Republic) has come out vehemently against Trump, advocating that they vote for Hillary Clinton as the only sensible option in the race. A few other papers, most notably The Detroit News and The Chicago Tribune, have taken the absurd step of endorsing Libertarian Gary Johnson for president despite his repeated public failures to display even a high school level proficiency of basic geography and global politics, but no major paper has come out for Trump.
Stepping away from the editorial arena, many papers and online news services have really stepped up their investigative reporting against both major candidates, Mr. Trump in particular. From old school papers like The New York Times publishing damning information about Trump’s legal, but extremely unsavory, likely shirking of up to $916 million in Federal taxes and The Washington Post open sourcing much of their reporting on Trump and generally being all over the man like a bad case of psoriasis, to newer, online only media outlets like ProPublica, Talking Points Memo and Think Progress which have consistently broken stories and deconstructed the byzantine web of lies spun by Trump and his surrogates on a daily basis.
However, it would seem as if TV news outlets have yet to thoroughly internalize the fact that Donald Trump is a political disaster of apocalyptic proportions and that giving him unfettered access to the airwaves to spout his peculiar brand of bilious nonsense isn’t such a good idea. For over a year now, broadcast news in general, and 24 hour news networks in specific, have feasted on the banquet of egomaniacal garbage that Donald Trump has laid before them, legitimizing the deluded ramblings of a charlatan and a reprobate with their incessant and for the most part insubstantial coverage. Like a bunch of insatiable boy band groupies, the CNNs and MSNBCs and FOX Newses of the world spend their days focused on empty podiums at Trump speeches or waiting breathlessly by the phone for him or one of his many surrogate blowhards to call and maybe boost their ratings a smidge. With the exception of a few personalities on MSNBC that have the temerity to cover the substance rather than the style of Trump’s myriad violations of basic human decency—Joy Reid, Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow & Lawrence O’Donnell—the TV news coverage of this election has been abysmal. There’s no news in their news. And, with so much dead to air to fill, most of these cable news programs fall back on a never ending feedback loop of incessant speculation and opining, punctuated with brief clips of the candidates speaking and on-the-ground reporters who are forced to value speed over veracity as each network tries to have the breaking-est breaking news of all the networks.
When a record 84 million Americans tuned in to watch the first presidential debate last week, it’s safe to say that the network brass and the shareholders and more than a few of the reporters didn’t care too terribly much about why those Americans were tuning in or the toxic effects that their product would have on the body politic. They cared about coming in first in their time slot and parlaying the night’s events into as many residual ratings bumps as they could. Again, it may be instructive to go back to Murrow, who said that if news, “is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, and only when packaged to fit the advertising appropriate of a sponsor, then I don’t care what you call it—I say it isn’t news.”
Nothing but wires and lights in a cable box.