Arts & Culture

The tricky optics of news in age of Trump

By
Arts & Culture Critic
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

For CNN and its media brethren, attacking President Trump hasn’t paid off … or has it? Painted by Trump as “fake news” outlets deceiving the American populace, the role of media publications as the arbiters of fact and fiction in American society seems to be increasingly imperiled. But their coffers tell a decidedly different story. This reflects a dubious symbiosis between the liberal media and Trump that is particularly uncomfortable for any progressive blissfully retweeting clips of Jake Tapper criticizing the president.

Interestingly, Trump himself isn’t a boon for ratings. Events featuring Trump, like the inauguration or his recent congressional address, have failed to eclipse the viewership numbers that former President Barack Obama routinely received while in office. Rather, as Josef Adalian of Vulture points out: “Even if viewers aren’t flocking to see Trump himself on TV, viewers are very interested in watching shows about Trump.”

Indeed, responses to Trump’s outbursts have proven to be an extremely profitable business model for news outlets. MSNBC liberal heavyweight Rachel Maddow’s viewership numbers last month more than doubled February 2016’s numbers. The late-night television landscape mirrors this development: Stephen Colbert’s politically conscious “The Late Show” on CBS rode a wave of Trump-bashing to its current position at the top of the late-night talk show rankings, a position it hadn’t held in nearly two years. Colbert passed his NBC rival Jimmy Fallon, whose rather shameless brand of anti-politicking and humanizing of Trump has rightfully drawn ire from critics.

CNN has been Trump’s most conspicuous target, the original victim of the president’s now-viral “fake news” label. Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, recently spoke at the INTV media conference about the network’s antagonistic relationship with the president. “I think there has never been a more important time to do journalism and that many of the organizations in the United States have never done better work or more important journalism,” Zucker said. “It is really the renaissance of journalism in America because of the nature of what is going on.” But for all of Zucker’s attempts to wax poetic about the state of journalism, he was later forced to admit the network’s obsessive interest with Trump has increased profit margins. Indeed, CNN’s viewership ratings reached an all-time high in the aftermath of the election. For all the talk of journalistic integrity, it’s impossible to ignore that media outlets who chase Trump’s tweets and misdirections down the proverbial rabbit hole routinely resurface with gold in their hands.

Sensationalizing Trump’s unfounded claims and profiteering off that hyperbole represents as much of a threat to the future of journalism as the president’s branding the media as “the enemy of the people.” When asked about the media’s tendency to explode after a Trump tweet, former late-night host David Letterman responded “Let’s stop (treating every Trump tweet as breaking news). We don’t need more confirmation that there’s something wrong with Donald Trump. Let’s instead find ways to rebuild what is rational.”

Letterman’s warning proves particularly poignant when considering how Trump has benefited from the faux war he has waged with the media. The GDelt Project tracked the number of mentions that major news networks gave to various candidates during the presidential election — Trump’s 1.5 million mentions by outlets like Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and others nearly doubled that of the next twenty candidates combined. As a society, we are well removed from Cronkite-era levels of trust in news anchors and broadcasts as purveyors of truth and logic. But even today, when networks repeat a narrative enough times, it begins to take the shape of fact. Talk about Trump’s candidacy enough times, and he begins to look like a legitimate candidate.

Moreover, in hunting profit over journalistic integrity, news networks have taught Trump a dangerous lesson. Through the production of sensationalism, he can misdirect attention away from the myriad issues in his administration that require serious investigation. Last week, amid a swelling tide of allegations about the White House’s connections to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Trump unleashed a series of tweets accusing Obama of wiretapping phone lines in Trump Tower in the weeks prior to the election. For nearly a week now, almost every major media outlet has treated Trump’s unsupported claims as an explosive breaking news story.

Reports quickly emerged that Trump had likely based his claim off an illogical conspiracy theory spewed on live radio by conservative firebrand and moral black-hole Mark Levin. Breitbart News, the former domain of Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, then picked up the story.

Upon that reveal, networks should have turned their attention to more serious news. Trump repeats what he hears from ethically compromised sources — end of story. Instead, CNN and its fellows whipped themselves into a collective frenzy, and applying the classic elements of investigative journalism to the “story” only lent credence to the idea that a Trump tweet could morph itself into a legitimate news narrative. News outlets didn’t cover every time Obama stepped out of the oval office to take a bathroom break. Trump’s tweets are essentially the same thing.

Of course, simply ignoring Trump’s manic episodes does a disservice to the American people as well. How then, should news networks and late-night hosts approach Trump without compromising their integrity? The answer is perhaps best understood in juxtaposing the work done by two late-night hosts, John Oliver and Samantha Bee, against “Saturday Night Live.” Certainly, while all three participate in Trump-based satire, John Oliver and Samantha Bee play the journalism hawk role in a way that SNL decidedly avoids. But, as Mark Harris of New York Magazine points out, “Samantha Bee and John Oliver always know why they hate someone; sometimes, SNL just knows that it hates someone. That’s not enough.” CNN, as well as its fellow news networks and late-night hosts, have made it clear that they hate Trump and will continue to challenge him. Too often, though, it feels like they love to hate him. After all, that hate has turned quite a pretty penny.