Trump is media fodder. Every day he offers two scoops of drama with a hearty dash of intrigue.
And while Trump is great for TV ratings, commercial success comes at a cost. He uses the mass media—especially the 24-hour news networks—for self-serving advantage.
He can do that because he’s crafty, having lived in the media space for so many years. He knows that many Americans get news from social media (60%+ according to a recent Pew study). And he knows that 24-hour news networks serve as a primary news source for many folks around the country.
Trump wins when commentators parse every tweet. Trump wins when experts debate—always with a Trump supporter or two in the bunch. Trump wins when broadcast and print commentators ridicule him. He responds via Twitter and those tweets always make news.
It goes on and on. But the irony is this: Trump isn’t a magician. He didn’t do any of this all by himself. He’s taking advantage of a table already set—the devolution of the mass market media—infotainment in broadcast news, especially. And that media slide has been going on for years.
When it comes to covering politics, today’s news networks offer mostly superficial coverage, monotonous treatment of a single subject, or partisan renderings. Sometimes it’s all three.
When it comes to covering politics, today’s news networks offer mostly superficial coverage, monotonous treatment of a single subject, or partisan renderings. Sometimes it’s all three. All of it contributes to a dumbed-down America—a high price to pay for commercial success.
Democracy requires a deeper understanding of the issues facing this country and what we might do in response. Consider The Affordable Care Act. The 24-hour networks treat “repeal and replace” as political theatre. Who’s lobbying on Capitol Hill? What will the Republicans do? What will the Democrats do in response? It’s infotainment at its worst.
What we don’t get – much or at all – is coverage that focuses on answers to fundamental questions: “What will happen to the more than 130 million Americans with preexisting conditions?” (per Harold Pollack and Timothy Jost).
Mass media treat topics as a political struggle between the parties—with the theatrics and bombast that ensues. But the sad reality is that it may just be the right approach—not only for the product they’re peddling, but for the audience they’ve attracted. News coverage these days is conflated with drama.
Can anything be done to counter this red tide? One answer is learning from Italy’s experience with PM Silvio Berlusconi, aka, “Italy’s Trump.”
As Luigi Zingales wrote recently, everybody “was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity.” But then things changed, Zingales observes: “Only two men in Italy won…against Mr. Berlusconi…/and they/…focused on the issues, not on his character.” (italics added)
Zingales is spot-on. The answer is substance. The answer isn’t character.
But evaluating character is tasty and low-hanging fruit. The media relish it. And the public just can’t get enough.
The public two-step goes like this: So-and-so is a piece of shit and everything that bastard does is shitty. So we have Trump and nepotism, Trump and a Blind Trust, Tillerson’s Soviet ties, Sessions’ alleged racism…. It’s not only about what people did in the past. It’s what they might do in the future. Once a shit, always a shit.
Character issues are certainly important, but let’s face reality: there’s limited bandwidth in the public domain. People get so worked up about character that they often have little energy left for other matters. It explains why so many people—on both sides of the coin—got so worked up with the thought that the New England Patriots had doctored a football during a NFL playoff game. With all the issues facing the NFL (e.g., spousal abuse, concussions), this country still focused incessantly on the matter of air volume in a football!
I firmly believe that the more the media and America spend on character issues, the less the media and America will spend on issues facing everyday Americans.
Let’s take two non-character issues that affect the American people.
- Thomas Piketty and colleagues have reported that the pre-tax income of the bottom 50% of American of wage earners has increased only 1% since the day Ronald Reagan stepped into The White House.
- The World Economic Forum recently reported that the U.S. ranks 45th in the world in gender equity.
Unacceptable should be the collective response! How can this be true in America? But most Americans probably don’t even know either situation exists. But you can bet that many Americans know that Trump’s son-in-law may be appointed to a prominent White House position.
So, I ask: What is news?
We need a recalibration of the answer—at the 24-hour news networks, in particular—a recalibration from personality-politics-as-news to issues-facing-everyday-Americans-as-news.
It will take broad, deep, and pervasive change to make that happen. It would mean NOT covering Trump every single second of the day. It would mean NOT interpreting his every tweet. It would mean having fewer “expert panels” with partisan plants promulgating right- or left-leaning blasts. It would mean offering more (and longer) features on issues facing America, like poverty, income stagnation, and college costs.
It would mean going into the neighborhoods and countryside to interview REAL Americans talking about their fears, hopes, and circumstances. And it would mean replacing “Hollywood Tonight”-type hosts with really solid, experienced, and SERIOUS journalists.
As I thought about how this might happen—believing that it really could—I also concluded that it’s not likely to happen at either FOX News or MS-NBC. Each network serves a highly partisan market, a market well described recently by Amanda Taub when she wrote: “Partisan tribalism makes people more inclined to seek out and believe stories that justify their preexisting partisan biases, whether or not they are true.” In network news, Rachel counters Bill. Sean counters Chris. People pick the flavor they prefer.
That leaves CNN among the major players. But therein lies a paradox. As I see it, CNN is the most grievous offender in terms of what I’ve written here. But CNN is also under attack—an attack by Trump that has been going on for months. And that kind of conflict can unsettle a network’s equilibrium.
The squabble reached a boiling point Wednesday afternoon at Trump’s news conference when Trump refused to answer a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, who was sitting in the front row. “CNN is fake news,” Trump said.
Even before that event, CNN had turned up the heat. You can see it literally on screen any time of the day. Trump is doing this. Trump isn’t doing that. Punch. Punch. Punch.
But you can’t beat a champion fighter by counterpunching alone. You need a game-changing plan. Flip the scrip.
Why do I care about any of this? Whether I like it or not (I don’t)—millions of Americans watch and take note of what they see on cable news. The network news channels and Facebook have become the bulwark of political knowledge for many Americans on issues of the day. What they get from those sources is what many Americans know and believe. And it’s what they use to make judgments about candidates, policies, and … eventually … what they do in the voting booth. And, at least as I see it, CNN is the best (probably the only) hope for change among these mass market outlets.
[dc]“E[/dc]ducate the populace,” that was CNN’s founding purpose. The very first story, back in 1980, was about the attempted assignation of a civil rights leader.
News coverage like that—designed to inform, enlighten, and educate—would truly make America great again. There’s Netflix for all the rest.