Michael Hiltzik
BUSINESS Michael Hiltzik
Column

Les Moonves, CBS, and Trump: Is TV's business model killing democracy?

No one should be surprised that broadcast executives are rubbing their hands in glee over the torrent of cash flowing their way from political advertising during this campaign season, or the huge audiences they're getting from the spectacle.

But it's hard to think of anyone speaking about this as crassly and cynically as Les Moonves, the chairman and chief executive of CBS Inc., who has spent the last couple of months giggling and chortling over how good this phenomenon has been for his company. Here's a sample, from a presentation he made on Feb. 29 at a media conference sponsored by Morgan Stanley:

"Man, this is pretty amazing. Who would have thought this circus would would come to town? It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS. [Laughs] The money's rolling in .... This is fun."

Sorry, it's a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead. Keep going .... For us, economically, Donald's place in this election is a good thing.

Les Moonves, chairman and CEO of CBS

Regarding the debates -- CBS broadcast an especially venomous encounter among the GOP candidates on Feb. 14 -- Moonves observed, "They're not even talking about the issues -- they're just throwing bombs at each other .... I've never seen anything like this and this is going to be a very good year for us. [Laughter] Sorry, it's a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald, go ahead. Keep going .... For us, economically, Donald's place in this election is a good thing."

At a UBS investment conference on Dec. 10, he said, "We love having 16 Republican candidates throwing crap at each other. it's great. The more they spend, the better it is for us, and go, Donald -- keep getting out there, and this is fun."

There's probably no point in arguing that Moonves should be reining himself in here, just a little, any more than one can blame a dog for drinking out of the toilet. 

But it's proper to examine how the invective-rich and content-free character of this year's political discourse is fomented by the business model of U.S. broadcasters. Driven almost exclusively by advertising, the model all but dictates that almost everything on TV be reduced to the lowest level of entertainment.

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In the past, this tended to produce programming of surpassing blandness, reducing the risk that any potential viewers might be offended and thus turn off the set. Today, it produces programming of surpassing crudity, because that's what sells today. Now that the sex-and-violence of dramas and sitcoms has leached into public affairs programming, the consequences to public debate are inescapable. 

This trend didn't emerge out of the blue. It was identified in the 1985 book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" by the late cultural critic Neil Postman, who also foresaw where it would lead. 

Postman drew much from Aldous Huxley, the author of the dystopian novel "Brave New World," who had warned that those determined to oppose tyranny often "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." Postman didn't disdain television for its junk, but for its conceit: "Television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous ... when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations." 

Abraham Lincoln, standing, and Stephen Douglas, sitting to Lincoln's right, staged the most elevated debates in U.S. history ... or did they?
Abraham Lincoln, standing, and Stephen Douglas, sitting to Lincoln's right, staged the most elevated debates in U.S. history ... or did they? (Public Domain)

He understood that the theatricality of modern politics was in itself not new. The Lincoln-Douglas debates, which we like to think of as the absolute peak of serious political discourse, "were conducted amid a carnival-like atmosphere. Bands played ... , hawkers sold their wares, children romped, liquor was available. These were important social events as well as rhetorical performances, but this did not trivialize them." Once the candidates took the stage -- each man's statements and responses took an hour or more -- people listened.

What's happened since then is that television has warped the priorities of the candidates and their audiences, bending them to the medium's own self-interest. "Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television," Postman wrote. "No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure." A news show in this modern mode, he added, "is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection, or catharsis." Could there be any better illustration of this than the half-hearted efforts by news-program moderators to keep the GOP candidates from descending into schoolboy taunts during their debates?

By 1984, when Postman was writing, the televised presidential debates had abandoned any pretense to a presentation of competing, reasoned policies. The candidates were "less concerned with giving arguments than with 'giving off' impressions, which is what television does best." (He may give too much credit to the first televised debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, which also turned on impressions: It's well known that while the television audience thought the cool, collected Kennedy was the victor, radio listeners -- deprived of the visuals of a sweaty, nervous Nixon -- thought the latter won.)

The question today is whether the commercial impulses of TV are interfering with the imperatives of democracy. No TV executive has been heard to argue that the wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump has anything to do with the profundity of his policy statements, which barely exist at all. It's all about the possibility that he'll do something outrageous. There could be no other excuse for the broadcast, by all three cable news networks, of the entire "victory" speech by Trump after the March 8 primaries even after it devolved into an infomercial for Trump-branded merchandise. Meanwhile, speeches by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and John Kasich went almost entirely unheard. 

It's tempting to dismiss observations about TV's business model as business as usual. Don't all commercial entities try to maximize their revenues, whatever the public consequences?

Well, yes. But the public has a right to keep those instincts in check; that's why we have clean-air regulations and banking rules, which aim to counteract the imperatives of a pure market economy when they harm the public welfare. And broadcasters long were considered to play more than a purely commercial role. They still claim to. Here's CBS' "social responsibility" statement: "CBS Corporation strives to use its power and reach for the public good. Its commitment to quality news coverage, community outreach and support, public service announcements, diversity efforts and socially responsible content across all its divisions has earned CBS the distinction of being a public trust."

Broadcasters used to be reined in by regulations, too. The Fairness Doctrine, which was in place from 1949 to 1987, was a reminder that TV and radio companies owned public licenses, and therefore they were bound to devote programming to issues of public importance and strive to treat them with balance, including by the inclusion of opposing views. But public affairs programs, on the whole, were money losers, and broadcasters eventually prevailed on the Federal Communications Commission to relieve them of the burden.

CBS itself bucked the trend by creating "60 Minutes," which showed that news programming, elegantly done and with a leavening of the occasional celebrity profile, could win popularity and make money. But lately even "60 Minutes" has shed its reputation for rigorous reporting, possibly because it's too expensive. 

The Fairness Doctrine and its cousin, the equal time rule (which is still in place) never were flawless guarantees of responsible programming. But the disappearance of any sense of public responsibility may point to the need for some new rules, or at least standards. Les Moonves showed no recognition whatsoever that his company could play a positive role in public discourse during this election year. He spoke as though CBS was along for the ride -- that it was "fun" to collect the money. Nice democracy you have here, he might have been saying; would be a pity if something happened to it. The broadcasters' complicity in the inanity of our politics is no laughing matter.   

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