“There is a broader dynamic at work, which is network executives have made a decision to get behind Donald Trump. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes at Fox News have turned Fox News into the Donald Trump network.”
-Ted Cruz, two months after suspending his campaign to be the Republican nominee
I’m not used to agreeing with Ted Cruz.
But I might have to when it comes to his post-nomination view of Fox News. Did Trump (almost literally) steal the spotlight on cable news? If so, how?
The how is important. Cruz is content to paint Ailes, Murdoch and company at Fox News as overly powerful Republican kingmakers, but it is important not to be reductive about so-called media bias. Fox is equal parts commercial organization and deep-throated political beast. We need to properly understand bias to get at the how of Trump’s surprising rise in American politics.
Discussions of bias usually stall on the political question. Americans are often content to yell “conservative” or “liberal” bias and leave it at that. And it makes sense. Those of us in the US have been trained to expect balance and objectivity from their news. It is only natural that the public perception of Fox News emphasizes the right-leaning commentary on the channel.
Still, I believe this is short-sighted. Yes, Fox News is politically motivated. Yes, Fox News provides a platform for conservative voices . . . but these are surface observations of bias and fail to appreciate a core insight about media companies. Fox is also former subsidiary and (now) a profitable partner with News Corp. with holdings around the world and across media platforms. It is a company, like all companies, with the sole aim of generating revenue for shareholders. We should not forget this form of bias when we speculate on the rise of the Donald.
The 2013 company break up of News Corp. can tell us something about the role of the profit motive in corporate decision-making. When Murdoch insisted on buying up flagship newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, major investors in the conglomerate balked. Everyone in that corporate boardroom understood newspapers were dying a slow death by a thousand bytes. No profit-minded, voting board member saw the paper as a worthy investment, particularly compared to the revenues generated by non-publishing enterprises. Perhaps it was his father’s beginnings in publishing that made the media tycoon need more newspapers in his portfolio. Whatever the case, investors demanded a business break-up. Print would be financially quarantined under News Corp. while more lucrative holdings in film and television go to the newly created Fox Group. We see a sort of corporate philosophy at play: Murdoch’s “vanity” publishing properties should not undermine returns from TV and film. Other corporations, like the Tribune Company, followed suit.
The point is this. Media literacy demands we be wary of political motivations in our news. They abound. But we cannot let this obscure the business motivations that aim cameras in certain directions and send reporters to events. Commercial needs direct our media and, thus, our national conversation. With this in mind, we might better understand why Fox, MSNBC and CNN all mysteriously ignored other candidate speeches to broadcast, live, an empty Trump podium. What journalistic principles tell us that an empty Trump podium is more newsworthy than an actual Sanders speech after a rough primary? Other programming principles are influencing the decision, of course.
Cruz’s criticism is sound (even if surprising given how out of character it is for Republicans to accuse media of much more than the “liberal agenda”). The target of Cruz’s attacks, however, is Fox News. We assume there is no surplus of liberal agenda there. So how do we understand the preference for one kind of Republican over another? Though Cruz points to TV executives as handmaidens to Trump’s victory, we need to also ask about the larger structure of media. How we think about media power matters. Something bigger than political bias refines the selection process: the commercial bias.
If we extend Cruz’s criticism a bit, we see what worked against him. Trump has media power. This goes beyond his media savvy, his charisma and his experience in front of a camera on The Apprentice. Trump has something more. Media power is also “the economic, political and cultural impact of organisations that deal in information, symbols and narratives,” as Des Freedman puts it. When we marvel at Trump, we are also marveling at our media system.
Many Republicans are dismayed by American news in light of Trump’s primary rampage. “Look at what the media did to the Republican party,” they implore. Establishment candidates appeared to sag into lumps of poorly refrigerated meat as they sought to stay above the rhetoric and refused to engage Trump in the very familiar language of 140-characters-or-less. The Cruzes and Jeb!s tried to use the private media as a forum to persuade voters their policies were best; they were bested by a policy-light entertainer with his tiny, tweeting hands on the levers of private media.
So when mainstream Republicans lambaste the role of Fox News in propelling this reality television figure into frontrunner status or acerbically note Trump’s bumper-sticker policies in contrast to other candidates’ plans, every time they paint Trump as the clown at the “media circus,” there is a glimmer of recognition that commercial news is not responsible news.
If we look long enough (a kind of thousand yard stare of the shell-shocked) we can see a logical syllogism about media policy in Ted Cruz’s anger toward Fox News. One I don’t think the Texas senator would speak aloud, but one I wouldn’t mind hearing from campaigns more often: commercial media put Trump where he is today.
Premise 1: Commercial media’s primary function is to draw large audiences with disposable income for advertisers. NBC sells our eyes and ears to them. Ratings, therefore, are the prime metric guiding the behavior of corporate media enterprises.
Premise 2: Donald Trump draws public attention (i.e. eyes and ears as measured by ratings agencies) and “media power,” the social connections to key media figures that provide access to audiences and add to his personal publicity.
Trump’s media advantage goes beyond having a knack for statements that draw media attention like a fly to human waste. He has functional and productive relationships with those that craft both American reality TV and American news. When Buzzfeed reporters went through Trump’s various biographies, they found CNN’s Jeff Zucker lovingly featured several times, once in typical Trump fashion as a “total dynamo”.
Trump’s relationships with people like CNN president Jeff Zucker matter. A lot. It translates into what Politico has liken to “an experiment in free media.” Normally, candidates pay to communicate with audiences . . . like advertisers. Not Trump. The NYT estimated Trump had attracted $2 billion in free media coverage as his campaign and corporate media managers feed off of one another. In short, help weak cable ratings and get airtime for publicity.
We saw the commercial bias in action with the debates. Fox News’ debate in Detroit on March 3 drew an amazing 17 million viewers. Compare that to 5.5 million drawn by the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan. Or compare 2016 to the 2012 Republican primary debates’ largest audience that year at 7.1 million. Trump has a magnetism that ratings-minded programmers cannot deny.
The Zucker-Trump alliance is long-standing . . . but more unnerving is what these two worked on: the creation of audience-attracting spectacles and catch phrases. As the success of Trump’s reality show carried NBC through a financially perilous time, Zucker learned how Trump was valuable to him as an NBC chief. Now that Zucker is leading CNN, what kind of value does Zucker see in brand Trump? CNN’s ratings jump with Trump on tap is telling if a bit disconcerting for those that favor deeper political conversations.
Trump’s unorthodox public relations style, honed in the ratings-focused cauldron of NBC’s sitcom lineup, pushes media manager to shift the editorial focus to Trump’s slightest move. The coverage? Trump unwittingly makes racist comment. Trump wittingly makes racist comments. Trump defends additional racist remarks. The most telling moment came with the “feud” instigated when Trump attacked Fox host Megyn Kelly. Not only did Fox News carry the Trump-Kelly drama to a ratings crescendo with Kelly’s awkwardly personal follow-up interview but other media outlets covered the tense public exchange as if an offended news personality were actual news the public needed. It had begun as a question about Trump’s regard for women and ended as a mildly flirtatious break-up/make-up worthy of any episode of The Bachelor.
So, we come to a testable hypothesis:
Conclusion 1: Figures who create public events which score better audience measurements will be preferred by commercial news’ editorial policies. Therefore, Trump will receive more coverage given the overlapping interests of the Trump campaign and commercial news producers.
Evidence? Sure thing. The left-leaning media criticism group, Media Matters, crunched the numbers. Trump received nearly double the coverage of the candidate with the second-most airtime (Cruz). Said another way: Trump was considered two times more “newsworthy” than Sen. Cruz (see graphic).
Cruz’s assertion that Fox News had “taken sides” in the primary process may make media critics out of some Republicans, but it also points up the need to weigh the virtues and vices of a public culture driven by private companies. The “side” the news networks took was the one that grew viewership by any means possible. Donald was a means to that end. Trump seeks publicity. Commercial news is a means to that end.
Much of this will play out again during the Republican National Convention. What is a convention other than a publicity event? Both Trump and media executives, dynamos or otherwise, will use the event to achieve their goals.
But what effect will the hypercommercial nature of the American press have on the democratic process? Will disenfranchised Republicans pull the curtain back on Zucker, Ailes and the long list of media execs whose livelihood depends on courting the outrageous? Not likely. Republicans are loath to restrict the prerogatives of private corporations. But Cruz’s demise and the rise of Trump politics might awaken those on the right that a free market does not necessarily produce the best journalism for democracy. The irony of Cruz’s comment is that the Republican pro-business orthodoxy shaped the media system that helped defeat his White House bid. It also means the corporate media status quo will continue, despite having bitten one Republican hand that fed them.