New York Daily News

G’BYE GOLDEN GOOSE

How will Me­dia cope now that rat­ings gi­ant is gone?

- BY PETE VER­NON Pete Ver­non is a free­lance writer based in Maine. He is a for­mer staff writer for the Columbia Jour­nal­ism Re­view. U.S. News · US Politics · Politics · Elections · Donald Trump · Leslie Moonves · United States of America · Twitter · New York · Washington · Twentieth Century Fox Film Company Ltd. · Joe Biden · Newsmax Media · Hofstra University · NBC · ABC International, Corporate Strategy, and Governance · Republican Party (United States) · Pierre Bernard

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.

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 ??  ?? For­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dom­i­nated TV for four years, boost­ing rat­ings. Now, the me­dia may suf­fer de­clines as they set their sights on more thought­ful cov­er­age.
For­mer Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dom­i­nated TV for four years, boost­ing rat­ings. Now, the me­dia may suf­fer de­clines as they set their sights on more thought­ful cov­er­age.
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