Staffers at the five major television networks are grappling with what role their organizations may have played in amplifying Donald Trump’s successful campaign of insults, generalizations about minority groups, and at times flat lies.
Conversations with more than a dozen reporters, producers, and executives across the major networks reveal internal tensions about the wall-to-wall coverage Trump has received and the degree to which the Republican frontrunner has — or hasn’t — been challenged on their air.
Two network sources also confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations, allowing him to dictate specific details about placement of cameras at his event, to ensure coverage consists primarily of a single shot of his face.
Network officials say the ratings have born out commercial incentives to devote their campaign coverage to largely unfiltered streams of Trump talking. CBS CEO Les Moonves quipped that Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.”
But many inside the networks are growing increasingly disturbed with what they’ve helped create.
“As a programmer, it’s an easy decision, people watch it,” said one producer. “As an American, I’m sort of troubled by it, because I feel like we contribute it.”
While there are journalists who have aggressively challenged Trump — notably Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, NBC News’ Chuck Todd, and CNN’s Jake Tapper — much of the coverage, including broadcasting his rallies and events live in their entirety, has been uncritical and even unfiltered, some of it conducted by interviewers unwilling or unable to provide much more than a platform for the candidate.
Several network and cable news staffers rationalized the amount of Trump coverage as a response to the demand of the viewers and as accurately reflecting his position in the race.
It’s an argument CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, has made publicly. When asked if he felt responsible for Trump’s rise, he reportedly told reporters at a lunch this week that “the frontrunner of the party is always going to get a disproportionate amount of attention.”
Some blamed the other Republicans in the race for being unwilling to attack Trump publicly. Many are unsure of how to cover a candidate like this — one seemingly immune to the traditional expectations of honesty and respect for democratic norms — in this medium.
In 2016 America where reality TV and politics are interchangeable, Trump is the perfect candidate to completely exploit the notion of news media as an entertainment product sold by for-profit corporate business interests and not a check on power as a public good. Trump was inevitable, given how bad the Village has been for the last 25 years.
And now they worry about the monster they've enabled?
I'd laugh, only the joke's on all of us.