U.S. Media

Trump, the Ratings Machine

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    • The U.S. elections have been a boon for American broadcasters, but their journalistic standards have suffered. How they deal with Donald Trump if he loses the election will be a test of whether they have learned any lessons.
  • Facts


    • The first TV debate between the two candidates in September attracted a record 84 million viewers.
    • Wikileaks revealed that some journalists close to Ms. Clinton sent parts of articles for checking by her campaign team.
    • Journalists covering Trump rallies have been subject to abuse by his supporters.
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Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump is shown on TV monitors in the media filing room during the last 2016 U.S. presidential debate in Las Vegas
Analysts say Donald Trump's antics have distracted the media from serious political debate on key issues. Source: REUTERS

CNN is pulling out all the stops once again. The station will make its blow-by-blow election coverage available free of charge on its website Tuesday night. At Fox News, special programming has already been running around the clock since the weekend. And NBC broadcast a special election edition of its successful comedy show, Saturday Night Live.

America’s major TV stations want to end what is probably the dirtiest and most emotional election campaign of all times with a record number of viewers. They are hoping that Tuesday even more Americans will be sitting in front of their TV sets than in 2008. Back then, an estimated 71.5 million viewers watched Barack Obama become America’s first Afro-American president.

The bitter battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has already provided the TV broadcasters with a boon in ratings and hefty advertising revenues. The first TV debate between the two at the end of September broke the existing record with 84 million viewers. For many media companies it was a welcome opportunity to fill their depleted coffers.

The structural crisis that has seen many Americans turn their backs on conventional television, canceling their expensive cable and satellite subscriptions and migrating to streaming services like Netflix, seems far removed these days.

“"[The presidential race] may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS”

Leslie Moonves, chairman CBS

Mr. Trump, in particular, draws the viewers, and broadcasters have lavished him with airtime. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” said the station’s chairman, Leslie Moonves, at the end of February.

In the meantime, the media’s role in this fiercely-fought election campaign has become the subject of heated debate. Mr. Trump himself feels “at war” with the country’s major media organizations and suspects that they are following a hidden agenda – to make Hillary Clinton president. And yet he is the one benefiting the most from the media attention.

He has continually criticized journalists at his election rallies and stirred up his supporters against them. “I am worried for the physical safety of my journalists,” said Megan Murphy, Bloomberg’s Washington bureau chief. Many journalists feel that way.

On the other side, reporters sympathetic to Ms. Clinton have come under fire for not being critical enough in their treatment of her and having sent parts of their articles for checking by her campaign team, as revealed in emails made public by Wikileaks.

CNN severed ties with the political commentator, Donna Brazile, in October, after it came to light through emails from Wikileaks that she had passed on two questions to Ms. Clinton prior to the TV debate between her and her Democrat challenger, Bernie Sanders. In the summer, Ms. Brazile had been the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, the organization behind the Democratic Party.

America’s major TV broadcasters have long since positioned themselves. On the center-right is TV network Fox News, which has the highest audience ratings nationwide and is part of media billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Serving as opposition to Fox News is NBC, which consistently reports favorably about the Democrats.

Even news channel CNN, which started as a neutral medium, is seen as favoring the liberal camp. According to media analysts Media Tenor International, Fox News’ reporting on the U.S. economy is fundamentally negative, as is its coverage of President Obama’s healthcare reform and of Ms. Clinton. At NBC and CBS, the exact opposite is true.

This election has been even more polarizing, said Professor Robert Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York. “It was more dirty and aggressive. The media was echoing what candidates were saying. They amplified it. The newspaper coverage was in my view the best. They covered all angle and devoted time to ongoing policy issues. There wasn’t a debate on policy issues on cable TV.”

The heads of the major media organizations used to take a common line on which subjects were newsworthy and which were not, what was proper or improper, what subjects were in bounds and out of bounds, said Professor Alan Mutter, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. That may have become more difficult in the age of social media, he said, but not impossible.

“Some journalists were spat on after Trump had complained about them. Maybe the networks should have simply not reported on his election campaign events for two, three days to clearly show that such behavior is out of line,” said Mr. Mutter. But the hunger for ratings was apparently too great.

Once the election is over, the media should quickly show whether they have learned from their mistakes. If Mr. Trump loses, his future influence will depend on media interest. Traditionally, interest in the loser quickly subsides as soon as a new president has been chosen.

Mr. Trump has already announced that if Ms. Clinton wins, he wants to build up his own media empire to maintain political influence. Whether he succeeds remains to be seen. The media must treat him like every other election loser, said Kristin Roberts, national editor of Politico’s Newsroom. “He only has as much fuel as we give him.”

Astrid Dörner is part of Handelsblatt’s team of correspondents covering finance and U.S. corporations in New York. To contact the author: adoerner@handelsblatt.com.

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