”It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” — Former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves on Trump
They didn’t have to do it. They knew what he was going to say. Right after it happened, the New York Times reported that Trump—discouraged and unsure of how to get out of this government shutdown gambit over the wall—told TV anchors at lunch that he didn’t want to give the speech he would give later that night in support of the wall, and he added that his trip to the border this week was a waste of time. Major media even had a good excuse to say the decision is out of their hands, as they denied President Obama a prime time speech on immigration in 2014 because they said it was “too overtly political.” To top it off, they knew that Trump would lie, which is why they had fact-checkers on hand to immediately unpack what just happened.
They didn’t have to do it.
Yet they did.
For those of you who missed Trump’s speech, congratulations. You didn’t miss anything new, and you did something better with nine minutes last night than the rest of us who are trapped by the news cycle did. This isn’t about his speech, and this is the only analysis needed of any speech given by Trump.
This is about the people who aired his speech. People who decided that they needed to amplify racist propaganda that they knew to be propaganda. Further, they knew the propagandist was not eager to spew his propaganda, and that the propaganda would not contain any major new developments commensurate with the seriousness of preempting scheduled programming. They had a wholly legitimate excuse that satisfied the both-sidesism mindset that envelops the New York-D.C. beltway, and major networks had every journalistic reason in the world to resist the advances of a man who routinely calls them the enemy of the people.
They didn’t have to do it.
So why did they do it?
Why broadcast hatred and bigotry?
Because you can fact-check that hatred and bigotry right after it’s done broadcasting?
Because he’s the president?
Since 2016, “this is how you got Trump” has become synonymous with “I don’t like this,” but this really is one major avenue as to how we got Trump—politics as a TV show—and not a president who would pursue the important policies that will literally determine life and death. TV portrays politics as a conflict of personalities—not coalitions—and thus, it becomes something like a reality TV show—akin to a political The Kardashians. Trump has become the sun, moon and stars in political media, and it is simply impossible to conceive life without his influence.
It wasn’t always like this. Walter Cronkite called out the president on The CBS Evening News in front of the entire country, correctly editorializing:
It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate…[I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.
Edward R. Murrow helped lead a national push against McCarthyism on CBS in the 1950s. There’s a reason why Jon Stewart became America’s most trusted newsman after the turn of the 21st century, and it’s directly related to the vacuum created by TV media’s inability to succeed America’s titans of journalism.
Politics can be as serious as we take it, and TV media specializes in making TV, which is not synonymous with journalism. I watched ABC’s intro to the speech with George Stephanopoulos telling us what was about to happen: Trump is going to talk about the “humanitarian crisis” at the border. I then listened to Trump call it a “humanitarian crisis,” then ABC brought on a reporter afterwards to explain how there is no humanitarian crisis at the border.
What the hell are we doing here, folks? Are we doing journalism, or are we just effectively retweeting powerful people?
What we witnessed last night was straight fascist propaganda that has been performed a million times before by a million different demagogues. If Barack Obama’s DACA plan was “too overtly political,” what the hell was this nonsense?
Day after day, precious lives are cut short by those who have violated our borders. In California, an Air Force veteran was raped, murdered and beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien with a long criminal history.
The truth of the matter is that the mainstream media needs Trump more than Trump needs the mainstream media. He has an entire echo chamber he can retreat to, while there is no other politician who moves the needle for them like Trump does—like Les Moonves said, Trump is great for TV news. MSNBC is surging in the ratings, Fox News is still doing great, and CNN is, well, CNN. It’s a good time to own a TV media business.
But it’s not a good time to own a TV journalism outlet. There is more TV than journalism in the overall product, and last night’s predictable lowlight was emblematic of how difficult it is for journalistic priorities to supersede profit motives when operating within a capitalist system. They didn’t have to amplify Trump’s hateful rhetoric—rhetoric that Trump didn’t even especially want to amplify—but the draw of the almighty dollar was too great. Trump brags about ratings all the time because he’s right. He’s a major ratings draw. TV news should love him. And that’s the problem.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.