Ratings and Profit 'Trump' Journalism, As Big Media Gives 'The Donald' Billions in Free Airtime

Posted March 23, 2016

MP3 Interview with John Nichols, national affairs correspondent, The Nation Magazine, conducted by Scott Harris


Within minutes after reports of the latest terrorist bombings that killed and maimed dozens in Brussels, Belgium on March 22, U.S. corporate news media gave precious airtime in the midst of the crisis to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose strong suit is appealing to racism and fear, not communicating the vital issues involved in effectively combating terrorism, or executing foreign policy.

The Pavlovian media response after the Brussels terrorist attack is but one recent example of how commercial media outlets, especially network and cable TV news, have lavished hundreds of millions of dollars of free airtime on the reality TV star-turned-presidential contender. Of course, the media corporation’s interest in featuring Trump on their programs has everything to do with ratings. Trump who is much criticized for his bombast, but is unarguably media-savvy, knows that his controversial and often toxic rhetoric generate public interest, much like drivers craning their necks to see a car accident on the side of the road.

Powerful CBS CEO Les Moonves declared at a Feb. 29 Morgan Stanley investors conference, "Who would have thought that this (Republican political) circus would come to town? It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." A recent study by the New York Times found Trump has received nearly $1.9 billion in free media in comparison to Hillary Clinton, who benefited from $746 million of free media and Bernie Sanders, who trailed with $321 million. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with John Nichols, national affairs correspondent with The Nation Magazine and author, who discusses the role corporate media has played in boosting public support for Donald Trump 's divisive presidential candidacy and the future of Bernie Sander's progressive campaign. [Rush transcript below.]

JOHN NICHOLS: We should never, ever lose sight of the overwhelming role that major media in this country has played in inflating (Donald) Trump into something much bigger than he would have been. He might well have been a significant phenomenon this year, I'm not underestimating that. I have been shocked and horrified by the way the media in this country has neglected all other candidates – Republicans and Democrats – in order to give wall-to-wall coverage to Trump.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Well said, John. There's some graphs that actually catalog the broadcast time on network and cable TV news shows that Trump gets gratis – free – comparing it with the other candidates, as you said. In many cases, the numbers are exponentially greater for Trump than they are for other candidates, including an important candidate like Bernie Sanders.

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, there's a very good example. At the end of 2015, the Tyndall Report, which really analyzes broadcast news, came up with an analysis of how all the stations, how all the networks had covered the race. And to use one example, ABC Evening News devoted 80 minutes of coverage to clearly Trump-related stories. Stories that were really about Trump. They devoted one minute to Bernie Sanders. Now that sounds bad, right? Turns out the minute for Bernie Sanders was rounded up. It was only 20 seconds. So when you really do the math, ABC Evening News, was covering Trump at a rate of 240 to 1 over Bernie Sanders, at a point when the two of them had almost exactly the same poll number.

Now you tell me what the play out of that is. The playout is that though each of them had equally level of appeal within their party, one of them got 240 times the level of coverage and ultimately which one of them now is the frontrunner, right? I mean, this is not rocket science. This is not a complicated thing to figure out. I don't expect media to give perfectly equal coverage to everybody. I don't think it should. I think some candidates are more interesting, some are less. I happen to believe that Bernie Sanders is actually more interesting than Donald Trump in a lot of ways. But people can make their call on that, and I respect that. That is what journalism is. You interpret, you take a look, you say, "This is more important than that." But it's never, ever a 240 to 1 ratio. That's what has happened. What our media has done is grossly irresponsible and it has been done not because of some conspiracy. It's not because people love Trump. It's because our consolidated, bloated, major media is now so obsessed with ratings and clicks online that it covers the easiest, simplest story and Trump is smart enough to make himself the easiest, simplest story.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Bernie Sanders – is he finished in terms of the nomination? And is there a possibility that Bernie Sanders' movement, populated by a very enthusiastic people, millennials, who see dim prospects for their future and looking for dramatic change – is it possible that Bernie Sanders' very exciting political campaign, if it does not emerge victorious, will transform, will morph into a new progressive movement across the country?

JOHN NICHOLS: It has to. It has to. You know, those who want to shut this process down and kind of move on to the November race. I think they're gonna just have to wait, because the fact of the matter is, it appears that in all these states that have yet to vote, people are very excited about mounting a Bernie Sanders, or a dissident politic. Now, ultimately, this will grow beyond Sanders. It has to. Politics never should be about an individual. It always has to be about more. But at this point, you have a candidate who's going out there and raising a lot of these issues, and drawing huge crowds, winning primaries, winning caucuses, probably will some more as we go along here. That ultimately can and must translate into the next politic. Not just of the Democratic party, but of the country because you know, I know people like to get in their partisan ruts. But the fundamental reality is, we have so many issues that we have not addressed for so long that when someone comes along talking about a political revolution, our media elites ought to pause and say, why does this so excite folks? Why does this connect so well politically against such odds? The answer is, people really do want a different politics. And I do think that out of what's happening this year, people will necessarily build a different, more radical, politics on the left.

See the Kirkus Review of "People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy."

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