The pageantry of lies that passed for a town hall last week was yet another low point in CNN’s coverage of Donald Trump.
To absolutely no one’s surprise, the former president used the media attention to paint an alternative view of recent U.S. history — one in which he features not as the twice-impeached, criminally indicted sexual abuser who lost the last presidential election, but as a decisive and winning strongman, the only person with the power and charisma to make America great again.
It’s a script that appealed to his many MAGA supporters in the New Hampshire auditorium last week; they cheered on their man as he mocked the victim of his sexual battery and called CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins “nasty” for her often-futile efforts to fact check Trump in real time. (Prior to the live town hall, a floor manager reportedly told audience members that they could cheer but not boo during the show.)
But the Trump loyalists inside the town hall weren’t the only ones clapping on cue. The day after the program aired, CNN CEO Chris Licht praised the event, telling staff that “America was served very well by what we did.”
Really? That train wreck was a public service?
Licht’s self-flattery echoed comments other media execs have made when defending their networks’ decision to amplify all things Trump. In 2016, then-CBS CEO Les Moonves offered a more accurate view: Devoting so much airtime to then-candidate Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” he said, referring to the bumper crop of political ad dollars brought in during the contentious 2016 election.
Trump’s media makeover
At least Moonves was being honest. The media’s Trump binge harmed the nation but helped their bottom lines. Licht, on the other hand, is trying to convince everyone that democracy itself benefits when the media give Trump a megaphone.
Licht likely learned that from his predecessor at CNN. Jeff Zucker has arguably done more than any single person to burnish the 21st-century caricature of Donald Trump. While an executive at NBC, he greenlit The Apprentice, which remade Trump from a bankruptcy-spawning loser into a boardroom genius with impeccable business savvy.
When Trump entered the political arena in 2015, he did so with an Apprentice tailwind. Zucker, who by then had transitioned to the top job at CNN, trained the network’s cameras on his celebrity candidate while denying equal time to Trump’s Republican opponents.
Early in the 2016 campaign, The New York Times estimated that the major networks had already given Trump the equivalent of $2 billion in free advertising — with much, much more to come by election day. The media chose Trump well before most Republican voters had a chance to vote for any of the other GOP candidates in the race.
All of this is to say that last week’s town-hall debacle is just more evidence of the dangers inherent in a commercial media system that mainstreams lying demagogues for profit.
Absolute disregard for the facts and mythologizing of strongmen are pre-conditions for fascism, say historians Fred Turner and Ruth Ben-Ghiat.
Turner, who teaches at Stanford, has written about the parallels between Donald Trump’s leadership style and that of Benito Mussolini’s early rule in 1920s Italy. The difference, according to Turner, is that we now live in a virtual world where people can surround themselves with a “fake news” media sphere all their own.
“The real problem is actually more of a structural problem,” he told an interviewer in 2016. “Media firms in lots of different subsets need to make money on advertising. When you are dependent on advertising, controversy is good. It doesn’t matter whether it’s true or not. What matters is that it gets a lot of attention.”
Like Mussolini, Trump is a master at manipulating media attention to amplify his propaganda, says Ben-Ghiat, an NYU professor who has studied authoritarian patterns worldwide. Many in the U.S. media have been “slow to catch on to what Trump [is] doing,” she said.
Or perhaps news outlets don’t care. As long as Trump’s hijacking of media attention makes them richer, why should media execs worry about the consequences?
CNN has faced a storm of criticism for its decision to give Trump a primetime slot, and deservedly so. But the network’s choices are symptoms of a larger problem. The commercial U.S. media system needs to undergo deep reckoning for its role in accommodating the rise of camera-friendly authoritarians. Without this serious assessment of the failings of top news execs like Zucker, Moonves and Licht, the media will never quit its Trump habit.
As an antidote we also need to support a noncommercial public-interest media system that promotes democracy and civic information. This includes funding public structures to support the production of local and diverse news and information, and the sort of investigative reporting that holds abusive leaders accountable.
While this approach doesn’t pretend to address every threat facing democracies today, it recognizes that a more robust noncommercial media can serve as a bulwark against the democracy-destabilizing forces of 21st-century demagogues. And it can do so in ways that prominent commercial outlets like CNN have failed to.