US media sups with devil for ratings gold
While the networks quickly saw the dollar signs while covering Trump's campaign, their reputations have suffered a catastrophic blow as a result
Published 06/11/2016 | 02:30
One of the great and yet to be answered questions raised by the wild, unprecedented and often bizarre Donald Trump run for the presidency is how it will impact on American politics and public life once the dust has settled.
For the US media, which has been accused of miserably failing to do its job over this long election season and often struggled to make sense of the Trump phenomenon, the fallout could be profound and deeply damaging.
On June 16 last year, Trump rode a gold escalator to the ground floor of Trump Tower in New York and announced he was running for the Republican nomination, with a now infamous speech that referred to Mexico sending "drug dealers" and "rapists" across the border.
From that moment, much of what many Americans disdainfully call the "mainstream media" was thrown for a loop. US politics has always been a rough game with larger-than-life characters. But the likes of CNN, the Washington Post, New York Times and new media titans like the Huffington Post (or HuffPo) had never seen anything quite like The Donald.
The Huffington editors at first refused to treat Trump seriously, announcing they would only cover him in their showbiz section as they judged his run to be one giant reality TV show. This changed after Trump won the nomination.
Others, such as CNN and the New York Times, had their pundits and editorial teams write his campaign off. The perma-tanned billionaire buffoon could never hope to take on respected and popular GOP figures such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio - or a right-wing street-fighter like Ted Cruz.
Virtually no major pundit, cable news channel, digital news site or newspaper would give the star of The Apprentice even an outside chance of taking over the Party of Lincoln.
Trump began with a series of blunders, many which would have instantly disqualified any other candidate from the race. He said the former GOP standard bearer and hugely respected former Vietnam POW John McCain was "not a war hero" because he "was captured".
He performed a grotesque mockery of a disabled reporter who questioned his version of events on the 9/11 attacks, picked a fight with the Pope and launched a series of deeply insulting attacks on his Republican opponents, calling them "Lyin' Ted Cruz", "Little Marco, "Low Energy Jeb". Trump also compared the saintly ex-brain surgeon and nomination rival Ben Carson to a child molester. Twice.
But as each blunder, insult and outrageous untruth led the media to declare this would be the one that would end him, the riled-up Republican base cheered louder and louder and called for more red meat.
Using his experience in over a decade of Reality TV, Trump dominated broadcast, print and digital coverage, choking the life out of his opponents' campaigns. It's estimated that over the course of his campaign, Trump will have received $2.5bn in "earned media" - the kind of non-stop, free campaign coverage that no other politician could expect in their wildest dreams.
Every appearance was broadcast live. Trump tricked the media into covering two of his hotel launches by promising to say something outrageous. America's fascination with The Donald was manna from heaven for an ailing broadcast media facing sharply declining revenues.
"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS," Leslie Moonves, chairman of the CBS network, said of the Trump phenomenon in March.
"The money's rolling in, and this is fun. It's a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
CNN president Jeff Zucker, who while head of another network gave Trump his big break on The Apprentice, said: "We've never seen numbers like this, it's crazy. Crazy."
Zucker and other media titans have since repented, with the CNN boss admitting that they gave too much unfiltered coverage to Trump from the start. But the so-called mainstream media has found they have been supping with the devil. Serious news reporters have flailed around trying to fact-check Trump's campaign and make sense of a blizzard of outrageous stunts and stories.
CNN was lambasted for hiring the ex-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a pundit, paying him a rumoured $250,000 to commentate on the election and then discovering that he was still on the Trump pay-roll.
Public trust in the media and journalists has plunged to an all-time low. Less than one-third of Americans now say they "trust" the media. Journalists have been regularly subjected to vile abuse and physical threats at Trump rallies and The Donald points them out, calling them "pigs, liars, the worst kind of scum".
Trump has been ratings gold for the news networks. But they reach the end of a bizarre, gruelling election with their reputation and level of public trust in the toilet.
Whatever the result, Trump has been a sugar-coated poison pill for the mainstream American media. The dose may prove to be fatal.