Challenge Donald Trump: The media needs to stop acting like the Republican nominee is reality TV

Ratings equal revenue, and the Donald Trump spectacle outdoes policy in bringing in eyeballs every time

Published October 1, 2016 9:59AM (EDT)

  (BEN BREWER / Reuters)
(BEN BREWER / Reuters)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


According to the most recent polls — Donald Trump is now leading Hillary Clinton in the critical swing states of Ohio and Florida.

And if their behavior in the primaries is any indication — the U.S. media is about to deliver this nation into the hands of Donald J. Trump, and there's probably very little any of us can do about it.

The "how" of this has played out in front of us for a year: While Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were debating issues on the Democratic side — and being largely ignored — Trump was getting wall-to-wall coverage as he bullied his Republican opponents in the primary.

So the "how" was grounded in editorial and business decisions about who to cover and how.

The "why," though, is the part that confounds most people.

Why would the TV networks be so aggressively handing billions of dollars (quite literally) worth of free airtime over to a man who's patently unqualified to run our nation?

The answer to "why" can be summed up in one simple word: Money.

First, there's the money to be generated by ratings. The more people who watch a network or show, the more that network or show can make from selling advertising.

Ratings equal revenue. And spectacle outdoes policy in bringing in eyeballs every time.

Second, there's the money being made by the executives, stockholders and highly-paid talent.

Republicans — including Trump — always push to lower taxes on high-income people like network CEOs and senior executives — and there's a huge array of think-tanks and affiliated charities that throw money at conservative radio and TV hosts who'll push their agenda on the air (as Ken Vogel and Lucy McCalmont pointed out five years ago in Politico).

Third, there's the institutional bias that virtually every billion-dollar corporation in the US has: "Cut taxes, cut regulations and don't hold us accountable for the public interest while we're trying to make as much money as possible."

This is, of course, the core default Republican position. So whether Trump is incompetent or simply horrible, it really doesn't matter -- if Trump is going to help corporate profits, who cares if he does it by pitting Americans against each other -- or against more than a billion Muslims?

There's money to be made!

And then there's reality TV. During the big Hollywood writers' strike a generation ago, TV executives came up with a new format that didn't need unionized writers: the "reality show."

Originally put on the air as placeholders until the writers' strike was over, the reality shows took off and created a whole new niche in TV programming that was quickly filled by a wide variety of odd folks — including Donald Trump.

Reality shows are cheap to produce, and they generate ratings. So, advertisers love them, pretty much regardless of content. And that makes money.

If the big TV networks — and particularly the big three cable TV "news" networks — could just have a nationwide reality show for four years, they'd make a fortune!

And if the subject of that reality show was a guy who was cutting their taxes and deregulating their interlocking-boards-of-directors bankster and refinery buddies, that's all the more gravy!

Enter Donald Trump.

The corporate media covered the primaries as if they were a reality show.

Hillary Clinton could get a bit of traction when attacking Trump, but her progressive positions on the issues were almost entirely ignored -- particularly her calls for higher taxes on rich people and corporations like the networks. It wasn't good "reality" programming

On the other side, "Low-Energy" Jeb Bush, "Little" Marco Rubio, "Lyin'" Ted Cruz, and the entire crowd of GOP wannabes tried to talk policy and be serious, but Donald Trump was perfectly willing — even enthusiastic — to go "full reality show" and make their heads explode.

As long as the "news" media covered the Republican primary like a reality show instead of a real contest for the leadership of the free world, Trump prevailed.

And now that they're treating the general election as a content-free reality show, Trump is prevailing again.

Forget what the on-air talent says; our corporate media are salivating over the possibility of a four-year-long, highly-rated, totally-unpredictable Trump-presidency-reality-show.

With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, the end of serious enforcement of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the media consolidation following the 1996 Telecommunications Act — the only thing that matters any more for network television is making more money.

Corporate media executives know that four years of Trump will be incredibly profitable for network television.

Forget how destructive it'll be to working and poor Americans, forget the damage it'll do to the planet and our children's future. It's going to be a Gilded Age for the corporate media — just like Les Moonves said during the primaries: "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS!"

By Thom Hartmann

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of "The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America" and more than 25 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

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