The British Broadcasting Corporation produces great, global newscasts for tens of millions of viewers. In February, for instance, its all-news channel broadcast stories about the threat to Britain of returning ISIS soldiers, riots in Haiti, clips from the Munich Security Conference, a short item on President Trump’s “wall” tangle with Congress, the Kashmir suicide bomb, an exclusive interview with Afghanistan’s President, a brief feature on life inside Ukraine’s no-go nuclear zone, and a contest between towns in Canada and Norway as to who has the tallest moose sculpture.
That month, by contrast, America’s three all-news cable channels—Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN—blathered on mostly about Donald Trump’s latest antics as though nothing else existed. Their shows were neither pure news outlets nor journalism, and consisted of opinionated hosts who debriefed hand-picked “Greek choruses” of mostly partisan panelists who endlessly parsed the U.S. President’s every word and Tweet. They offer mostly political views, not news, and ignore coverage of America (except sizeable hurricanes and mass shootings), world events, popular issues like gun control, universal healthcare, or the economy. They are disappointing, journalistically, and have served the public poorly by offering opinions focused inordinately on Trump.
In 2017, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation tracked the content of Fox, MSNBC, and CNN for 19 days and found that on two of the three networks Trump was the topic 50 per cent of the time. There was, the analysis found, “more Trump than all the other news put together. It is left-leaning MSNBC that is most obsessed with the President and right-leaning Fox News that mentions him the least.”
The Trump obsession probably worsened in 2018, and news coverage has steadily deteriorated as American television networks have closed expensive foreign and domestic bureaus and laid off journalists. In 1996, Fox became rabidly Republican and opinionated, thanks to its CEO, the late Roger Ailes, who had been a media consultant for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. The other stations soon adopted Fox’s opinion chat show format and it paid off.
Once the also-ran of the three, the fiercely opinionated MSNBC is now beating CNN and is a serious rival to Fox for the first time in nearly 20 years. In 2018, the fiercely pro-Trump Fox News led the ratings with 2.4 million viewers; the fiercely anti-Trump MSNBC came in second with 1.8 million, while the slightly anti-Trump CNN garnered just 988,000.
Some point out the irony of MSNBC’s success. “If NBC [MSNBC’s parent] didn’t make The Apprentice, there would be no President Donald Trump. And if there was no President Donald Trump, there would be no MSNBC ratings jump,” wrote Michael Schneider, Editor-at-Large for Variety.
The Apprentice fictionalized Trump as a highly successful businessman, with flawless judgment about people, who was worth $10 billion. In reality, Trump was often unprepared, inarticulate, and impulsive, said Apprentice producers in interviews. “Most of us knew he was a fake, but made him out to be the most important person in the world, like turning a court jester into a king,” said Jonathan Braun, editor for the first six seasons of the show.
Trump remains a reality TV star who wins ratings by being outrageous and vilifying critics. Now the media is his villain, or “enemy of the people,” which in turn nets him even more media attention, including from other broadcasts such as the country’s three 30-minute nightly newscasts with four times the audiences of news cable channels. Media critic Jon Stewart, the retired anchor of The Daily Show—a “fake newscast” that satirized television coverage as well as politicians—blamed all television broadcasters for being as narcissistic as the President. “He baits them and they dive in, and what he’s done well, I thought, is appeal to their own narcissism, to their own ego.”
Trump manipulates the media in another way, too: using news networks to spread the message that news networks are unreliable. In 2018, the President’s press secretary blamed the media for dividing the country politically and spreading falsehoods. “You guys have a huge responsibility to play in the divisive nature of this country, when 90 percent of the coverage of everything this President does is negative, despite the fact that the country is doing extremely well, despite the fact that the President is delivering on exactly what he said he was going to do if elected.”
Fortunately, manipulation of America’s mass media will be less of a danger in future. Some 56 percent of Americans don’t watch TV news shows, and virtually all those under 40 don’t watch traditional television at all but rely on their smartphones for information and video content. Beginning in 2019 and 2020, broadcast TV advertising revenues are expected to drop a disastrous 20 percent in revenues to reflect this, then collapse by 2023 when major U.S. sports teams are expected to bypass networks and broadcast their games online.
Viewers will pay to watch the Super Bowl or a package of sports games, just as they pay for Netflix. For journalism and news, this represents another challenge, as it does for democracies. Will people pay for factual, curated, unvarnished newscasts, information, and analysis? Unfortunately, in recent years, warring megaphones on television, expropriated by a reality star, have not served Americans well. But a future of unverified digital information and propaganda, disguised as news, will be far, far worse unless regulated. We are what we watch and read and hear.