When Commercialism Trumps Democracy
By VICTOR PICKARD
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
— Les Moonves, CEO of CBS, when discussing Trump’s candidacy
Donald Trump’s ascendance has many enablers, but news media deserve special scrutiny. Television news in particular has popularized Trump — and, in doing so, has turned our political process into a reality TV spectacle. Even when attacking, news media are boosting his visibility. And even as he attacks them — threatening to change libel laws, mocking and feuding with journalists, holding campaign events where members of the press are corralled and roughed up — he serves media well. Because the news organizations that cover Trump are making obscene amounts of money.
This symbiotic relationship has gained some recent attention, even “media culpas,” from the press. The New York Times reported that Trump has receivednearly $2 billion in free media coverage since he began his campaign. And a study on newsworthiness tallied that during 2015, Trump received 327 minutes of nightly broadcast network news coverage, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 121 minutes and Bernie Sanders’ 20 minutes.
While it’s tempting to blame the audience for this skewed coverage, it’s far more complicated. “We simply give people what they want” has been the industry’s go-to justification for cheap and shoddy programming since the dawn of commercial media. Just because it’s hard to look away doesn’t mean we crave constant spectacle instead of substantive news. And though it’s difficult to imagine an alternative when options are lacking, we can still dare to dream that a better media system is possible — one that does not sensationalize and trivialize matters of profound importance to the future of our democracy and of our planet.
Much popular media criticism decries specific journalists or news organizations’ individual failures. But this suggests that the problem lies with only a few bad apples. Rarely do we consider the underlying structural reasons for why our media system operates as it does. This is not to imply there’s a cabal of media owners who meet in smoky backrooms to plot the manipulation of the masses. Rather, we can better understand the “trumpification of the media“ by focusing on the commercial logic that drives it. This draws attention to the root of the problem: the commercial pressures and profit imperatives that encourage particular types of news coverage.