As networks bask in higher ratings and elevated ad rates thanks to the deluge of coverage devoted to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, media observers and business news veterans warn that outlets are doing serious long-term damage to their credibility.
In February, CBS chairman Les Moonves celebrated at a conference how Trump’s role in the presidential race was helping CBS line its pockets with political ad money, saying, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He added, “I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Meanwhile, CNN’s obsessive Trump coverage has reportedly led to complaints from network employees. But according to The Huffington Post, network president Jeff Zucker has waved off concerns, telling employees that there had been “too much handwringing” about how the media and CNN had handled Trump.
While Trump may be making news executives happy right now, many media observers and business news veterans tell Media Matters that outlets are dropping the ball with their Trump coverage.
According to David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times investigative reporter who has written several pieces critical of Trump in recent months, “News organizations do lasting damage to their long-term credibility by covering the presidential campaign on Trump’s terms rather than from the perspective of the public interest.”
He added, “There is a rich record to be mined, but only a few people are digging and most of those are highly focused on this specific gem, not the whole. It’s the duty of journalists to collect the many loose threads of Trump’s life and weave them into the fabric of narrative that gives meaning for readers, listeners and viewers.”
David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun media reporter, also said the open-ended coverage with little or no fact-checking or editorial judgment is dangerous for news outlets.
“When [viewers] start to sense or believe it is a kind of game, that the cable channels aren’t really covering this as news and it is really about other reasons, people can get cynical and have long memories about that,” he said. “It is especially dangerous for CNN, who is doing well and getting ratings but doing it indiscriminately. And being the cable channel with the most credibility to lose, they are long term the ones who could be hurt worse by this. This is a dangerous game for them.”
Michael Hiltzik, a Los Angeles Times media columnist, called Moonves’ comments “devastating” for CBS.
“In terms of its position as a carrier of the public interest, it is a concession that it doesn’t have the public interest in mind," Hiltzik said.
He later said, “The cable networks have already lost credibility because they have had so much difficulty in dealing with Trump’s approach, they have been very bad at challenging his misstatements, his lies, giving the audience the proper context.”
The New York Times on Monday called the coverage “a struggle” for networks, adding, “the television news industry is wrestling with how to balance fairness, credibility and the temptations of sky-high ratings as it prepares for a presidential matchup like none other.”
And they are not alone in that view.
“The rules of journalism still apply. It has to be credible and offer the proper context,” said Jeremy Smerd, editor of Crains New York and a former politics reporter. “That is something news outlets have to be worried about in terms of credibility. When they start buying into the talking points of the Trump campaign it undermines their credibility.”
He later added, “News outlets need to do more than be his amplification, they need to be his filter, Donald Trump continually changes his message and it is hard to know what he really means.”
“It almost completely erases the distinction between news value and entertainment values,” said Ed Wasserman, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. “The news media adopting him as an asset and as a crowd pleaser and as a magnet for audience hits. It confers stature on him and wins him supporters with the coverage he is getting, credibility and a seriousness about him as a candidate when there is nothing in his record that satisfies that.”
He added, “This is going to go down as one of the historic [press] failures, on a par with the run up to the Iraq War. The press has not bothered with him as a serious candidate.”
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for The Poynter Institute, said the presidential campaign “is more like a reality show than the pundit class would like to admit. Some of the errors like broadcasting so many of his rallies live and settling for phone interviews were a product of that.”