The Greatest Threat To American Democracy Is The Sensationalist, Ratings-Obsessed Television News Media

It took two monsters to create Donald Trump, Presidential Candidate Edition: the debased Republican Party of Sarah Palin, and the slavish, contemptible American television news media

After getting heartily sick of watching the British rolling news channels the past few weeks, I decided to spend the last couple of days watching CNN (the US version, not the godawful international version).

It wasn’t pretty. In fact, it was almost enough to make one long for the BBC’s barely concealed hysteria at the thought of Brexit and being forcibly ripped apart from their beloved supranational European political union, or Sky’s never-ending quest to be the first news organisation to get their newscopter hovering directly above anything which may or may not turn out to be of interest.

Take today as an example.

For the past four hours, CNN has been reporting the “breaking news” that Donald Trump claims that his campaign has “never been more united” when various Republican talking heads that CNN was able to lure into the studio were willing to say the exact opposite – and hardly surprising, since their presidential candidate is is a proudly ignorant egomaniac with a borderline personality disorder.

This couldn’t even be charitably described as “breaking news” when I first tuned in at around 8PM London time, and it certainly isn’t breaking news four hours later. But still, there it is: “Awaiting Trump Rally In Florida” proclaims the banner, while five disembodied talking heads float on a giant screen behind Wolf Blitzer, waiting to air their opinions.

What you notice watching American news – besides the constant advertisements for dubious pharmaceutical products whose long lists of compulsorily recited side-effects often outweigh their curative properties – is the degree to which everything, and I do mean everything, is about Donald Trump.

(At this point it is worth pointing out to uninitiated British readers that CNN is the closest you’ll get to “objective” cable news reporting in America, with fair ‘n balanced Fox News skewing firmly to the right and MSNBC leaning forward equally firmly left. Not being overt partisan shills for one or other of America’s two main political parties is a nightmare for CNN executives who need high ratings, and so in desperation CNN latches on to every single technical gimmick you can imagine – drone cameras! holograms! – in a desperate bid to make their offering more exciting to fickle viewers).

It is fair to say that were it not for the American television news media, Donald Trump would be filming a new season of The Apprentice and lending his name to another shoddily-made range of “luxury” businesswear right now, rather than facing Hillary Clinton as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.

This blog has already raked the GOP over the coals for their pitiful part in these dismal proceedings. But in despairing at the intellectually and morally debased Republican Party we should not let the media off the hook.

For the fact is that America’s news networks failed to fulfil their democratic duty by treating a presidential election like it was sweeps week rather than a serious decision with long-term consequences for the future of the republic. Donald Trump makes a great television candidate because he is willing to do and say things – exciting, attention grabbing things – which no other candidate will say. Unfortunately, this nearly always involves Donald Trump being rude, immature, spiteful or wrong about something or someone. But the news networks don’t care. It makes for great TV. And so they show more and more Trump, and less and less of everyone else.

When the Republican Primary campaign was still being fought, at one point we reached the ludicrous position where Senator Marco Rubio made the tactical decision to emulate Donald Trump’s style and start making gratuitously offensive insults and statements of his own, just to try to wrest the attention of the television cameras away from Donald Trump for one wretched moment. Needless to say, it backfired – Rubio could never match Trump’s ability to mock and belittle people, and so he ended up tarnishing his own reputation while doing nothing to halt Trump’s rise.

Donald Trump - Ratings Machine - CBS - Les Moonves - CNN - Television News

My point, I suppose, is this.

There is nothing funny or entertaining about this American presidential election. Voters are faced with a rather dismal choice between a far from universally loved Democratic Party candidate on the one hand and an absolute megalomaniac on the other. And they have been put into this position of not having a decent choice between two valid, honourable but competing political philosophies largely thanks to the decision of the television networks last year to break into their regularly scheduled programming every time Donald Trump raised an eyebrow, while giving the other Republican candidates (let’s face it, many of whom were so hopeless that they really needed a media leg-up of their own) almost zero screen time.

The other candidates had to drop what they were doing and go to Washington or New York if they wanted to be featured on the Sunday shows. Trump was permitted to appear by satellite link or even telephone, so eager were American news executives for a bit of Trump’s verbal gold. And whenever Donald Trump has been interviewed, the questions have frequently been of the most depressingly softball variety. America does not have a Jeremy Paxman figure, or even an Evan Davis (God help them). Nor do they have as strong a tradition of confrontational political interviews as we have in Britain – the tradition of deference to authority is, rather counter-intuitively, very strong in America. And so during all of his unearned media time, Donald Trump has very rarely been faced with a single question which caused him to stumble, despite his lengthy back catalogue of cruel and ignorant public pronouncements. Rarer still has Trump faced a searching follow-up question when he replies with one of his repetitious, opaque defensive statements.

All of which makes Amy Goodman’s excoriation of the American news media very true, and rather refreshing:

The media manufactures consent – for war, for candidates in elections, by bringing you more, for example, of one person. Like Donald Trump. He is pumped into everyone’s home. He can just stay in a gold gilded mansion in New York or one of them in Florida. The rest of the candidates trudge from one state to another. Why does he get this unfiltered pipeline into everyone’s brain, into your eyes and to your consciousness?

It matters. The Tyndall Center did a report in 2015, they looked at the whole year, and they found Donald Trump got 23 times the coverage of, say, Bernie Sanders. They found ABC World News Tonight did something like 81 minutes on Donald Trump and I think they gave Bernie Sanders 20 seconds.

[.] In this high-tech digital age, with high-definition television, digital radio, all we get is static, that veil of distortion and lies and misrepresentations and half truths that obscure reality, when what we need the media to give us is the dictionary definition of static. Criticism. Opposition. Unwanted interference. We need a media that covers power, not covers for power. We need a media that is the fourth estate, not for the state. And we need a media which covers the movements that create static and make history.

Obviously Goodman’s interest was promoting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders (the video was made several months ago before he officially dropped out of the Democratic primary contest), but her critique of the wildly excessive time and attention lavished on Donald Trump by the television news media is dead accurate.

As a Brexit campaigner during the EU referendum, representing an organisation (The Leave Alliance) which was the only group to actually offer a comprehensive Brexit plan yet struggled to get any meaningful media attention, all of these same criticisms apply to the British media too. It’s nice to know that these problems are universally felt on either side of the Atlantic, I guess.

As a small campaign organisation it was almost impossible to get our word out when the television news was racing to cover every last syllable which dribbled from the mouth of Boris Johnson, while our own esteemed experts – including one of Britain’s foremost authorities on the EU – struggled to get journalists to show up to a launch event right in their own Westminster back yard.

Nobody expects perfection from the media. Media companies have to pay the bills too, and often keep shareholders happy. But for so long as telegenic ignoramuses dictate television (and print) coverage to the extent that they do, our democracy will remain vulnerable to demagogues like Donald Trump.

On election night in America, we will see (as we always do) the great and the good of American TV journalism pat themselves on the back and endlessly congratulate themselves about the moving spectacle of democracy which they are helping to transmit to a grateful nation. Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, Wolf Blitzer, Diane Sawyer, Lester Holt, Dana Bash, Joe Scarborough, Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, Greta van Susteren, Andrea Mitchell and all the rest of them will be churning out platitudes about the beauty of democracy faster than you can stick knitting needles in your ears.

This year, they might consider dwelling on the role they have played in debasing and jeopardising that democracy in the tawdry pursuit of ratings.


Donald Trump - Make America Great Again

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