I’ve been criticizing American tv news – sorry, “news” – for a while. It’s been a frustrating task, given that mock-journalism’s ability to prosper and influence. But now it seems like the networks, at long last, may have, just maybe, started to realize* what a disaster they have brought about.
The breaking point seems to be Trump’s triumph, based in part on their coverage of this year’s presidential campaign.
[M]any inside the networks are growing increasingly disturbed with what they’ve helped create.
“As a programmer, it’s an easy decision, people watch it,” said one producer. “As an American, I’m sort of troubled by it, because I feel like we contribute to it.”
Trump is the main target of this first, faint twinge of self-awareness:
Conversations with more than a dozen reporters, producers, and executives across the major networks reveal internal tensions about the wall-to-wall coverage Trump has received and the degree to which the Republican frontrunner has — or hasn’t — been challenged on their air.
much of the coverage, including broadcasting his rallies and events live in their entirety, has been uncritical and even unfiltered, some of it conducted by interviewers unwilling or unable to provide much more than a platform for the candidate.
(“much of the coverage… has been uncritical”. Think about that for a minute. That sentence describes the most widely consumed news coverage in a major democracy, from a putatively free press.)
There’s even a smidgeon of honesty leaking out, now that the damage has been done:
“The higher-ups say it’s because he’s the Republican frontrunner,” one CNN source said. “I think he’s the Republican frontrunner because we’ve given him so much coverage.”
And now there are reports two network programs (from NBC and CBS) won’t let Trump call into their shows any longer. Such bravery.
Meanwhile, the “news” outfits are now being more open about their rationale.
Network officials say the ratings have borne out commercial incentives to devote their campaign coverage to largely unfiltered streams of Trump talking. Trump’s presence in the race has also been good for local television stations who reap the benefits of increased spending on advertisements.
To be fair, these tv “news” people’s dawning sense of horrified awareness is also a little defensive. “[O]ne veteran producer said, “He’ll throw a hand grenade in, and then will come on to us to talk about it.'” Similarly, “‘If the competition’s on Trump, then we’re staying on Trump,’ said one top producer.”
Cry me a river.
Like a drunk waking up after a bender and gazing at his ruined carcass in the mirror, our tv “news” networks are starting to glimpse the outlines of what they’ve done. Everyone else around them knows what’s happened, but is often too polite or scared or inert to say anything. Other people frankly enable them. “Oh, he’s not so bad.” “She’s learning to control her drinking.” “They’re family!” Now these epic sots want us to appreciate their newly found maturity and self-awareness.
It’s not enough to say that, by boosting Trump, American tv news has driven the car of democracy into a ditch. No, the networks have GPS’d the deepest, dankest swamp they could find, pointed the car’s nose in that direction, then slammed their heaviest boot on the gas, whooping like fiends.
But the “news” organizations can’t come clean yet. It’s too early in the recovery process. They have to go through the stage of blaming other people, or at least the creature they helped Frankenstein into being. Here’s one small example:
After several incidents of Trump campaign aides threatening to revoke credentials for reporters who left the fenced-in press pen, representatives from ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, and CNN organized a conference call with Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to negotiate access.
According to two sources familiar with the call, which took place in November, the Trump campaign, citing security concerns from Secret Service, dictated to the networks that their camera crews could only shoot Trump head-on from a fenced-in press pen…
Facing the risk of losing their credentialed access to Trump’s events, the networks capitulated.
Paraphrased Victor Frankenstein: “It wasn’t me, but the monster who made me make him!” This, my friends, is an excellent, if small, example of how to make democratic media a subservient lapdog. At least Italy’s Berlusconi, whom Trump very much resembles, owned his own media. Trump doesn’t, so American tv “news” jumps to act like he does.
Maybe that’s about to change. Maybe the major tv “news” outlets have surfeited on horror, and will now commence the long, painful process of self-transformation. There will be errors and backsliding, but the outcome should be a net improvement.
In the meantime, the first step in 21st century information literacy remains: stop watching American tv news.
*Yes, that’s a Buzzfeed link. That’s where these leaks are happening. Interesting how the Trump campaign has talked about suing Buzzfeed.