After all, the current head of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, helped design “The Apprentice” to make household words out of “Donald Trump” and “you’re fired” back when he was head of NBC Entertainment. As president and chief executive of CNN 10 years later, Zucker became the giver who kept on giving.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has described his contribution this way: “It was Zucker who gave Trump astonishing amounts of free exposure in the Republican presidential primary on the cable network, continually blasting out his speeches and rallies — often unfiltered and without critical fact-checking.”
During the election season, I saw entire Trump rallies carried live by CNN, interrupted only for mandatory commercials. Not only was there no critical fact-checking, there was no serious effort to provide context for viewers. Never raised, let alone answered, was the question: Why should a developer with a shaky reputation and no relevant experience be seriously considered for the most powerful job in the world?
One explanation came from Trump. Comparing himself to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Trump said he was a “ratings machine.”
It’s no secret that ratings are what determine political coverage on television. Trump built an audience with creatively disgraceful behavior. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” that company’s chairman and chief executive, Les Moonves, told advertisers in early 2016. “It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Donald did keep going. Far enough that, by October 2016, Zucker could admit: "If we made any mistake last year, it's that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run." He might as well have said: “The devil made me do it.”
As a television news reporter from 1968 until 1990, for stations owned by ABC, CBS and NBC, I was party to the transformation of political coverage into a form of show business. With the advent of cable, FCC regulations went away and outside consultants came to dominate decisions about what was newsworthy. Traditional news values were abandoned to advertisers’ demands for more viewers.
That’s an old story, but now it’s the political players who are sacrificing their values — and their influence — to the ratings. Last year’s GOP primaries featured so-called “debates” on the cable channels, starting with 17 candidates. One hopeful after another was tossed off the island. But the “winners” and “losers” were not judged for their positions on issues, their priorities, their experience or even their ostensible appeal to important constituencies. They were determined by public opinion polls taken after each debate and assessed by MSNBC, FOX and, of course, CNN.
As the “fake media” Trump now excoriates brought him closer to victory, the opponents he insulted most — “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Low-Energy Jeb” — came to support him. Mitt Romney, the “choke artist,” imagined himself as Trump’s secretary of State.
Ultimately, Trump’s nomination was not decided by Republican Party officials, elected or otherwise, much less by the registered voters they claim to represent. He won pluralities in the early contests but no majorities until most of the competition had been eliminated — by those other means. Moonves celebrated the primary process as a “circus” and presented it to CBS viewers not as a public service but as a source for the ratings and revenue that broadcasters and cable channels depend on.
I’ve been around too long and covered too many political conventions to suggest they were ever controlled by idealists who ignored special interests. Political reality is much uglier than that, and politicians have been devouring public opinion polls since they were available. But with the advance of technology and analytics, the standards and practices developed for politics and political coverage are moving ever further away from what could remotely be called “in the public interest.”
Gratitude is not a quality possessed by Trump, before or since he attained the White House with no experience, a vague platform and changing priorities. But if it were, he could thank the “fake media” — starting with CNN — for a presidency that, six months in, still appears to be making itself up as it goes along.
The rest of us should recognize that if politics is considered a circus by both politicians and the people in charge of covering them, the candidate with the best show will be most likely to prevail.
Warren Olney is host of “To the Point,” produced and broadcast by KCRW, Santa Monica, and syndicated by Public Radio International. This piece does not reflect the views of KCRW or PRI.