How The 2016 Presidential Election Became A Reality Show
If the 2016 election seems to be more like a reality TV show than an election, it is for a simple reason: it is. I should know. I spent years producing reality TV, and this one is a ratings winner, even if it is a disaster for the nation.
How did we get here?
It started with a simple yet compelling plot line: the story of how Donald Trump, a complete political unknown, came within one step of the presidency — and maybe even gets to be the president. We’ll have to wait for the end-of-season episode where you, the audience, get to vote!!!
Nate Silver, Editor in Chief of FiveThirtyEight recently reinforced this ‘politics as entertainment’ idea when he tweeted:
Some people (and some very good friends of mine) claim that the political parties don’t mean a thing, and that events are being orchestrated ‘somewhere else.’ And they are right. They are. They are being orchestrated by the media, but not for some nefarious ‘political’ end, but instead for the oldest motivation in the world — for money. And it’s not money from the Clinton Foundation or from the Trump Foundation, but from the ‘advertisers.’
This is the story of how our democracy is warped by the media. But to understand this story, we have to begin in Newark, New Jersey in the 1990s. Trust me, you will understand why.
In the 1990s, I produced a very successful TV series for TLC called Trauma, Life in the ER, one of the very first reality shows.
During the first season we were filming in Newark, New Jersey. At 3 a.m. an ambulance pulled up to the ER and the orderlies rushed out a man who had multiple gunshot wounds. This was not unusual in Newark.
What made this unusual was that the chief of surgery came running up to the gurney, grabbed it and began to run with it to the operating room. As we ran, he yelled out ‘we have to save this man.’ I ran with him, filming all the way. When we got to the OR, they all ran in, but I stopped. I was in street clothes. In a flash, the doctor was at the door to the ER.
“Aren’t you going to come in?” he asked.
I explained that I wasn’t sterile.
“Come on in,” he said. “The last thing this guy has to worry about is infection.”
I got some great footage as he ‘battled for the man’s life.’
When it was over, he invited me to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee.
“Lemme tell you an interesting story,” he said. “A few months ago, the crew from 48 Hours (A CBS show) was here. Like you. My buddy and I knew what you guys are looking for, so we had another multiple gunshot guy come in, like this guy. And my buddy and I made a big show for the cameras of saving his life. We were so good that they made the fight to save his life the centerpiece of the whole show,” he said.
“Great,” I replied, sipping my coffee.
“Only thing was,” the doctor said, laughing, “the guy was dead when he came in.”
TV is a business. And TV is about ratings. That’s all it’s about. That’s what drives television. Ratings.
For years, political journalism was a dead zone for television. I mean, let’s be honest, who really wants to watch Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton. They are awful television. They are not what you would call ‘ratings winners.’
Then, along came Donald Trump, a four-time bankrupted New York City developer and failed casino operator who had his own reality TV show.
He was the dead guy with multiple gunshot wounds that TV turned into the center of the story. The star.
Television news made him. He was a ratings machine. The media turned him into that. He was loud, obnoxious, a loose canon. He said shocking things — belittled U.S. senators who were prisoners of war; made fun of the handicapped; insulted Mexicans; called for a religious test for immigrants, and of course, so much more. So much more.
Les Moonves, the Chairman and CEO of CBS said “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And it was.
For more than a year, the networks, all of them — and the newspapers and magazines, the whole spectrum of media — rode the Trump phenomenon to new ratings, new income, new success. He was the goose that kept laying the golden eggs. In the primaries he trounced over every rival. He racked up win after win. He was the Susan Boyle of politics. Ugly as sin but the underdog who keeps taking out the better-looking rivals. It was storybook TV. He gave the networks just what they wanted — ratings. They built him up, up, up. By some estimates, the networks along gave him nearly $2 billion in free advertising.
Then, against all odds, he won the Republican nomination for the presidency. It was a great ending to season 1. A ratings winner.
But now it was time for season 2, and the dynamics of television called for a different plot. Suddenly, all of the network who had done nothing but build this man up took out their knives and started to slice him apart. In season one there was nothing he could do wrong. In season 2, there was nothing he could do right.
Those whom the networks build up they also take down. The ratings machine demanded it.
Now, there was nothing that was suddenly revealed in ‘season 2’ that the networks didn’t know in ‘season 1.’ They all knew, from his very first primary, that he was a pathological liar, that he had a long and troubled history of sexist behavior, that he played fast and loose with facts, that he insulted and belittled people, almost for fun. This was nothing new to them, but they had chosen to ignore it in season 1. In season 2, they would slice him apart with it on a daily basis.
And they did. And they continue to.
Is it any wonder that he and his followers think that there must be some kind of ‘media conspiracy’ against him? In a way they are right. There is. It’s called ratings.
We all depend on the news and TV networks to inform us about what is going on in the world. We expect them to be objective observers of the daily events. But they aren’t. They have a warped view. Their view and what they report is not warped by a political agenda — it is warped by a financial agenda. They have to make a profit. And to make a profit, they have to put on a show that people will want to watch.
Donald Trump provided that show.
But in pursuit of profit, the media companies warped our view of the world. They effected the election in a way far beyond what any kind of political or personal bias might have. They bent the news to feed our insatiable need to be amused and entertained at all costs.
And in this case, the cost was the well being of the nation.
Live by the media, die by the media. This applies to Donald Trump, it applies to Hillary, but most importantly, it also applies to us.
as originally published in TheVJ.com