Two years before CBS booted him for sexual misconduct, then-Executive Chairman Les Moonves was asked about the circus surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
“It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS,” he said. “Who would have expected the ride we're all having right now? … The money's rolling in and this is fun,” he said.
If that sounds familiar, you might also remember CNN President Jeff Zucker praising candidate Trump’s constant availability to the media as reason enough for the network to run wall-to-wall coverage of nearly every Trump rally in the weeks prior to the general election.
Their decisions to go all-in on Trump in 2016 may sound a distant echo today. But it’s one that is still being heard and felt in the wake of the networks’ decision to air Trump’s Tuesday-night speech about a border crisis that doesn’t exist and a wall that U.S. taxpayers don’t want to pay for.
Add to that the near certainty that Trump’s speech will be laced with lies and racist propaganda, lending credence to the complaint that networks share a portion of the blame for legitimizing these toxic views — or at least for giving them a platform.
In justifying their decision to surrender primetime to Trump, CNN Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter said: “What we saw with this decision we have seen for decades: the broadcast networks believe they have a responsibility to present the President’s announcements about big stories on big moments in the news.”
Traditions, customs and concerns
“It is not that television networks are unaware or uninterested in the President’s mendacity,” Stelter continued. “But I think that tradition, that custom, of broadcasting the President simply outweighs the concerns.” (emphasis added)
But does it?
When President Obama announced in 2014 that he’d be giving a major address on immigration, the networks refused to air it on the grounds that it was “overtly political.”
What’s really happening tonight has nothing to do with news custom, to quote Stelter, unless you consider it customary for the networks to practice a type of lazy journalism that treats politics as a game to be played between opposing Beltway pundits and politicos.
And this decision has nothing to do with traditions of broadcasting, unless it’s the tradition of ignoring the media’s complicity in perpetuating White supremacy, not only by handing the microphone to a racist but by having so few commentators who are willing to address the subtext of his anti-immigrant screed.
You can bet that Tuesday night’s news programming will feature plenty of pundits willing to comment in studio about the pluses and minuses of Trump’s performance — about whether the president in fact appears “presidential.”
Missing will be diverse perspectives from actual immigration experts or the voices of Central American asylum seekers suffering under Trump’s cruel policies.
The media’s responsibility
Indeed, former network anchor Soledad O’Brien predicted that the CNN post-game will feature as much:
“Political pundits, not immigration experts. It will be framed as yes wall/no wall … Even if it’s lies: the big question will be: how was the delivery? Did he seem Presidential (and likeable?),” she tweeted. “No immigration experts will appear. Few or no Latinos.”
There’s no way of knowing whether O’Brien’s predictions will come true. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.
Ratings are still the currency driving this game as both Moonves and Zucker indicated in 2016.
Though things are different today: Candidate Trump is now the president of the United States. In that role, he routinely lies to and misleads the public. He has a long record of racist comments, many directed toward asylum seekers. He regularly attacks and ridicules the work of journalists who try to hold him accountable, including those who work at the networks that will air his speech.
That decision to air comes with a larger responsibility as stewards of the public airwaves to fact-check the president’s remarks (preferably in real time). The networks should even consider cutting away from the speech should Trump veer from the topic of immigration and border security to spread racist propaganda.
The real crisis
These are short-term solutions to the media moment at hand. But the real crisis isn’t at the border. News outlets need to have a deeper reckoning about their role in enabling Trump’s lies and spreading his racist propaganda.
If it’s customary to legitimize a president who seeks to discredit facts and cast truth seekers as “enemies of the people,” then those customs need to change.
If it’s a broadcasting tradition to help destroy democratic norms and demonize Brown and Black people fleeing political violence, then that tradition is wrong.
Journalism serves a higher purpose in a democracy. The networks must work harder to achieve it.