Kathy Sheridan: US networks sell their soul for Trump ratings boost

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American friends wonder why the media cannot ignore the Republican candidate for a week

Kathy Sheridan

Last week in the US, a Gallop poll suggested that only one in three Americans have any trust in the media, the lowest ever recorded. Separately, in a vanishingly rare show of dignity, the majortelevision networks staged a minor rebellion against Donald Trump’s mighty media stranglehold.

This stranglehold is fashioned from dollar bills. Not Trump’s own dosh of course – he brags about not spending money on campaign ads – but from the ratings generated by his nonsensical, childish bombast.

With their round-the-clock, razzle-dazzle coverage of his campaign, network chiefs knew well the destruction they were wreaking on the body politic of the US and its people. In February, CBS chairman, Les Moonves, said as much. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

For those still wondering how a coarse, ignorant fraud has managed to reach the gates of the White House, there is your answer. CBS is the most watched network in the US. The networks hit their nadir last week when they accepted Trump’s invitation to an event billed as a major statement on President Obama’s place of birth.

In a healthy, self-respecting media sector, of course, the first suggestion that Obama was not their legitimate president should have seen Trump sidelined years ago as a malign, racist buffoon. Instead, CBS and ilk roared “encore”, unleashed the satellite vans and turned his racism, bigotry, sexism, xenophobia and egomania into entertainment gold, too dazzled by the dosh to exact the journalistic price of a single, serious, costed policy.

Hotel plug

So even when the venue for the promised major statement turned out to be Trump’s brand new hotel and the event itself a blindingly obvious marketing wheeze, the media still piled in. And they listened as the presidential candidate lauded his new venture as “one of the great hotels anywhere in the world . . . so really honoured to have this as our first event”.

Only after a series of testimonials to the great man from retired military men and more than 20 minutes of priceless, live TV coverage, did he finally step up to acknowledge President Obama as American, in a segment that took all of 33 seconds and included the playground jibe that Hillary Clinton started it.

Reporters jumped onto blingy chairs to roar questions at a smirking, silent candidate. Then he led photographers on a tour of the hotel. The wholesale denigration of their highest office and elected incumbent by a cheap, vulgar salesman, failed to stop the networks. Once again, they swallowed the bait willingly, handing over an estimated $1 million (€895,000) in free advertising.

“We got played again,” admitted John King, CNN’s chief national correspondent live on air, while America’s news terriers recommenced lashing Clinton for daring to soldier on through pneumonia.

The only bright spot was that minor rebellion by the major networks. Embarrassed beyond endurance, they jointly agreed to erase the hotel tour footage, using as cover the fact that their pool producer – someone whose job includes asking questions – was barred from taking the tour with the videographer.

Had they finally disgusted even themselves? Or did the reporters themselves rebel?

American friends wonder why the media cannot ignore Trump for a week, or begin every report with a list of his lies. The Huffington Post, for example, concludes all reports that include Trump with an editor’s note: “Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims – 1.6 billion members of an entire religion – from entering the US.”

Using tragedy

But the damage is done. Once lifted up by the media, Trump galloped on to find his own direct route to his fans. On Monday, he was doing what the reality star does best: using a tragedy to sell his candidacy. After the latest New York attack, he tweeted his 11 million: “Saturday’s attacks show that failed Obama/Hillary Clinton polices [sic] won’t keep us safe! I will Make America Safe Again!”

Beyond proposals to exclude an entire religion and building walls, he has failed to say how. In recent weeks, he has called one respected columnist “a neurotic dope” and CNN panellists “mostly losers in life”. The word “neurotic” is a particular favourite and usually applied to women.

Right now, by complete coincidence, America’s only hope is a woman. A woman with “unbridled ambition”, according to the hacked emails of former secretary of state Colin Powell, the man who sold his own reputation to sell the Iraq invasion. Of course, no American president, ever, has suffered from unbridled ambition.

There are lessons here to be learned by the world’s media. And by all those who say they don’t care how the media works. And, most importantly, by those who routinely call for big, mouthy businessmen to sort out the country’s problems. Watch next week’s debate.

 

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