In 2016, television networks claimed ignorance about how their imbalanced and overly simplistic coverage, which essentially treated Donald Trump as the star of a reality show, influenced the presidential election.
At the time, I was a producer at MSNBC. While I argued that Trump was benefitting from unfiltered, unedited airtime, some of my colleagues thought it better to let the audience see Trump’s true colors. Then they could make up their own minds—presumably against him.
At the end of his first year in office, in December 2017, Trump predicted to the New York Times that he would win reelection, “because newspapers, television, all forms of media will tank if I’m not there because without me, their ratings are going down the tubes.” The relationship cut both ways. According to mediaQuant, a firm that tracks the value of media coverage, in the lead-up to the 2016 election Trump “received $5.6 billion throughout the entirety of his campaign, more than Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio combined.”
That toxic symbiosis continues. News producers still chase Trump’s whims, because his self-manufactured scandals consistently provide high ratings. To justify the glut of coverage—at the expense of nearly every other important news topic—they point to his innate newsworthiness as president. We must consider what is being overlooked. During his presidency, fatal encounters with police have remained steady (about a thousand a year). Regulations to protect air and water have been removed. Judges, many unqualified, all zealously ideological, have been confirmed at a record pace. All have happened in broad daylight on Capitol Hill, but with minimal scrutiny from the networks.
There were thirty presidential candidates in 2020, including three Republicans, in addition to Trump and Joe Biden. Most were well qualified but underexposed, held to a single standard: Will they intrigue the audience as much as chaos and outrage can? Even now, two weeks out from the election, this question remains the driving force behind most news coverage.
According to the Stanford News Analyzer, which counts the number of times a person appears on-screen, Trump was on CNN 1,332 times in September; Biden clocked 829 appearances. That’s an improvement since April, when Biden appeared just 89 times to Trump’s 1,568—but still egregiously lopsided. (As of October 18, Trump also leads 593 to 179 for the month.)
What does the public miss when networks focus so narrowly on Trump’s exploits? Last week, the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, released a study of Biden’s tax plan that concluded he would cut taxes for most Americans in 2021. The study is significant, and has a potential impact on people’s actual lives. It’s certainly the kind of news that a voter might want to know before voting. How many times has it been mentioned on CNN? Not once.
One recent night, Don Lemon got close to giving Biden’s views adequate airtime. During his cross talk with Chris Cuomo at the top of the hour, Lemon praised Biden’s town hall, calling it “substantive.” Lemon said he watched Biden, not Trump, and as a result, “I got a great answer on the 1990 crime bill that I had never heard before. He actually said it was a mistake. I got great information on covid. I got great information on what he would do to try to fix systemic racism in this country.”
And yet, in his next breath, the CNN host led his discussion with Trump. He did not discuss Biden’s substantive points with Kamala Harris, who was the lead guest. They focused more on Trump than they did her own running mate.
We’ll soon find out whether Trump will have sustained the benefits of blanket coverage as he did in 2016. But even if he departs office in January, this fatal flaw in our democracy—that journalists at networks like CNN care only about ratings—will remain.Ariana Pekary is the CJR public editor for CNN. She was an award-winning public radio and MSNBC journalist for two decades. Now she focuses on the systemic flaws of commercial broadcast news. She can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @arianapekary.