New York Daily News
G’BYE GOLDEN GOOSE
How will Media cope now that ratings giant is gone?
For the past four years, Donald Trump dominated politics, the press, and the daily thoughts of Americans as no single figure ever has. His tweets, taunts and tantrums set the agenda for the day’s news, leaving journalists — and their audiences — scrambling to keep up.
The Trump era, marked by vitriolic attacks on the media and the failure to stand up for press freedoms abroad, did, however, harbor a cynical silver lining when it came to news organizations’ bottom lines. In 2016, then-CBS Executive Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said of Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” By admitting the quiet part out loud, the since-disgraced media mogul hit on a truth about the 45th president: whether Americans loved him or loathed him, they couldn’t turn away.
With Trump now ensconced at Mar-a-Lago, stripped of the Twitter account which served as his method for instigating so much madness, the political press is left to confront an as-yet-unanswerable question: What happens when the shiny objects of politics are no longer gilded in Trumpian ratings gold?
Journalists acknowledge Trump’s frequent claims that he was great for their business, unlike so many of his other boasts, were not lies. Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post saw subscriptions surge, while cable news ratings skyrocketed. The Times and Post reportedly tripled their digital subscriber base over the past four years. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all notched record audiences in 2020.
Trump was “a controversy factory” in office, said Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker. “Controversy sells and attracts readers, no question about it. We would get hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people to tune into a story just because he said or did something outrageous.”
Under President Joe Biden, the news, of course, is no less important. Biden has taken office in the midst of a raging pandemic, an economic crisis, a period of racial reckoning, and an impending impeachment trial of his predecessor. While it is unclear if the American public will continue to follow developments from Washington with the same intensity they did over the past four years, journalists are hoping that the audience remains tuned in.
“People feel a real engagement with national politics now in a way that maybe they didn’t some years ago,” says Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “I’m hopeful that interest endures and people understand that in order to keep our democracy, we have to have engaged citizens.”
The dawning of a more normal administration, one that embraces experience and process rather than relying on policy-by-tweet pronouncements, brings an anticipated decline in attention-grabbing controversies. It also presents the press with opportunities to calibrate its coverage. Instead of Trump’s Twitter feed serving as journalists’ assignment editor, some see an opportunity to inform their audience on matters of substance.
“There was a franticness to the outgoing administration that undermined the ability for the things they did to be analyzed and debated with a high-mindedness,” says Wesley Lowery, a CBS News correspondent and contributing editor at the Marshall Project. “Politics sells and people enjoy conflict, but it would be nice to be able to turn on the news and find out something about news.”
One persistent challenge in bringing Americans the news was exacerbated over the past four years. While mainstream outlets — what the Post’s Sullivan refers to as “the reality-based press” — took a critical, sometimes combative, approach to covering the administration, right-wing outlets fully embraced a worldview guided by “alternative facts.”
Led by Fox News, which in 2020 extended its run as the most-viewed channel on cable for a fifth year, a mediasphere that includes upstart networks such as Newsmax and One America News, as well as a host of digital outlets that embrace varying degrees of reality, continues to push an anti-media narrative that has led to a distrust of the press as a whole.
“Les Moonves may have thought Trump was great for CBS, but he was demonstrably not great for trust in the news media,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of Hofstra University’s Lawrence Herbert School of Communication and a former NBC and ABC News executive. “We work on the basis that our audience trusts the information we’re delivering them. This administration worked very hard for four years to undermine that trust.”
Since the election, that sowing of distrust in the media has come back to bite one of its prime perpetrators. Fox News’ audience, like the Republican Party the network promotes, has fractured, with some viewers turning the channel to even more pro-Trump options. CNN has overtaken Fox as the top cable network, and led all television channels in coverage of Biden’s inauguration, which was watched by over a million more viewers than Trump’s, an early if uncertain sign that perhaps the expectations of an audience drop have been overstated.
Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial will present an early litmus test of whether the press will maintain the progress it made in covering Trump since the election. Bad-faith attacks on the process from the former president and his sycophants are coming. Will the media revert to its “both-sides” approach and give equal time with the evidence Americans saw with their own eyes? Will cable networks hand over their airtime to elected officials who denied the legitimacy of Biden’s election and helped stoke the fury of the insurrectionists?
Meanwhile, the first inklings of a slide back to status quo reporting have appeared in coverage of Biden, with commentators across cable news praising the normalcy of his actions and the Times wondering whether his fancy exercise bike belied his everyman persona.
For many journalists, a return to the way things were would be a waste of the hard-earned lessons of the past four years. The political press experienced an undeniable — if belated — spine-stiffening under Trump, a willingness to avoid euphemism and to call out lies, racism and authoritarianism by name.
Networks, however slowly, became comfortable cutting away from speeches packed with false and potentially dangerous statements. Some of those tactics are less likely to be necessary in coverage of the Biden administration, but the inclination to speak and write honestly about the actions of powerful figures and the problems confronting the nation should continue.
Ultimately, journalists argue, the desires of the audience should matter less than the quality of the coverage.