It should be perfectly obvious to anyone that there is no war between Donald Trump and CNN. It may look like there is. But there isn’t. This is because Donald Trump and CNN share the exact same core objective: to put on a really good show.
I say this is “perfectly obvious.” That’s because it’s an undeniable fact that CNN exists to serve the interests of the Turner Broadcasting System, which in turn exists to serve the interests of Time Warner, Inc., which exists to serve the interests of the shareholders of Time Warner, Inc. And Donald Trump exists to serve the interests of Donald Trump, whose primary interest is in appearing on television a lot and being famous and powerful. These two sets of interests are perfectly symbiotic, and there is no reason that there should be any serious conflict between them. Donald Trump wants to be on television. CNN wants people to watch television. And because people watch television when Donald Trump is on it, neither CNN nor Trump has any reason to make any effort to seriously undermine the other.
It’s bizarre, however, that when I have mentioned to people the simple fact that Donald Trump and CNN have the same relationship as clownfish and sea anemones, I have been treated like some kind of conspiracy theorist. I am, it is suggested, positing some kind of worldview in which media and political elites gather in backrooms and conspire over cigars. I am being cynical, and implying that nothing is as it seems and that we’re all stupified, zombified sheeple, unaware that the powers that be are laughing behind our backs while we obsess over a spectacle manufactured for consumption.
But in actual fact, I’m implying nothing conspiratorial at all, and it exasperates me endlessly that the idea should be perceived this way. I don’t think Sean Spicer and Wolf Blitzer meet for breakfast each morning and plot out the day’s Trump feud. Rather, it’s simply that by independently pursuing their own personal/institutional objectives, they benefit one another. This requires no shady collusion whatsoever. After all, the clownfish and the sea anemone do not have to work things out in a smoke-filled room. They don’t even particularly have to like one another. They simply go about their business, and the same thing happens to be good for both parties. Thinking about how relationships emerge from rational self-interest doesn’t make you Glenn Beck with his chalkboard; it’s standard economic thinking.
I’ll give you further evidence that I’m not offering a “conspiracy”: you don’t usually see conspiracies described openly in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter. And yet here we are:
On the TV front, [network president Jeff Zucker] and CNN have ridden the Trump wave as adeptly as any outlet. In the critical 25-to-54 demographic, CNN’s daytime audience in January was up 51 percent year-over-year (Fox News was up 55 percent); it pulled in an extra $100 million in ad revenue (counting both TV and digital) last year compared with past election years. Profit for 2016 neared $1 billion, and the short-term outlook suggests the Trump bump will lead to another $1 billion haul. “It’s going to turn 2017 into an even better year than we already expected to have,” says Zucker.
Here’s the New York Daily News‘s Don Kaplan:
The feud between Donald J. Trump and CNN is like an iceberg: There’s so much more going on beneath the surface than anyone knows. At first glance, it would seem completely adversarial, but it’s not… Those who know Zucker understand his ego is almost as outsized as Trump’s, and given their history, the pair shares a special bond — one that entitles Zucker to a level of access other news executives do not enjoy. Zucker told New York Magazine the pair talked at least once a month during Trump’s campaign for the White House.
In fact, the presidential campaign and the first few weeks of the Trump administration have proven to be a boon to the bottom line for CNN and its competition. In many respects, Trump’s vitriol toward the media and the tough coverage of his administration reinforce themselves, driving coverage forward.
By all accounts, the rise of Donald Trump in American politics has been fantastically good news for CNN, which has seen an incredible ratings boost and reaped a billion dollar profit from the campaign cycle. And Jeff Zucker is an old friend of Donald Trump’s, having launched Trump’s television career by commissioning The Apprentice in 2004. (You can find lots of photos of them hanging out together.) For the head of a network with an ostensibly adversarial relationship with the new president, Zucker has seemed remarkably pleased with the direction of things: “This is the best year in the history of cable news … for everybody. We’ve all benefited.” (The New York Times recently observed that “nibbling filet mignon in a private dining room overlooking Central Park, Jeffrey A. Zucker, the president of CNN, did not look like a man perturbed.”) According to Politico, Zucker and CNN recognized early on that “Trump would be a ratings machine,” and deliberately gave him “quite a bit of coverage,” including broadcasting many of Trump’s rallies and speeches in full. Faced with the fact of his own complicity in the rise of a terrifying and incompetent president, Zucker said he had no regrets, and reportedly “sleeps great at night.”
All of this is completely at odds with the received idea that Trump and the network are in a fight to the death, with Trump undermining journalists, ushering in a post-fact era, and posing a serious threat to the freedom of the press. CNN contributors and correspondents declare that Trump poses an “existential crisis” for American journalism and poses a threat to democracy and free speech. But television executives don’t seem to share that opinion. During the election CBS’s Les Moonves seconded Zucker’s perspective:
It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… For us, economically speaking, Donald’s place in the election is a good thing… Donald’s place in this election is a good thing… The money’s rolling in, and this is fun. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.
Could anyone who actually had serious grave concerns about Trump speak like this? (Moonves later insisted he had been joking, though since what he said was true, it’s unclear what the joke was supposed to be.) Certainly anyone who thought that the future of the press was at stake, or recognized that millions of lives could potentially be destroyed through mass deportation (let alone nuclear war and climate change) you would have a hard time classifying anything about the election as “fun” or wishing Trump continued political success. Yet that’s how the heads of CBS and CNN are feeling: they’re not worried. They’re downright pleased. For them (as opposed to everyone else), this is great. It is, as Zucker put it, “a very exciting time.” You don’t have to speculate especially wildly, then, in order to be skeptical of there being any real “hostility” between Trump and CNN. All you have to do is listen to its chief executive’s words.
Again, this doesn’t necessitate believing that there is a conscious effort on CNN’s part to help Trump. While overt media-political collaboration does happen (according to Cenk Uygur’s internal account of working at MSNBC, the Obama administration had significant pull with executives there and shaped the network’s tone), the real question is simply whether it’s possible for a profit-driven media to care much about serious journalism or moral values if ratings and profits lie elsewhere. Financial self-interest powerfully shapes us on a subconscious level, and it’s easy to see why the optimal position for CNN at the moment is to feel like they are opposing Trump while not actually doing anything to seriously undermine him.
And that’s precisely what seems to be happening. Yes, there are regular spats with Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway. These are entertaining; they even go viral! But after Donald Trump’s recent speech to Congress, in which he accomplished the spectacular feat of reading from a set of prepared remarks for the first time in his political career, CNN declared him “presidential,” with even the network’s progressive commentators gushing over Trump. It was somewhat bizarre to see Trump’s supposed bitter adversaries giving him totally undeserved praise for a transparently manipulative bit of agitprop. But as The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson explained, television news is a show, and shows demand narratives, and Trump steadily becoming statesmanlike is a great narrative, so there was no reason not to give Trump the story he wanted:
The fundamental bias in punditry is not toward “presidential” behavior or against “resistance.” it is more simply pro-plot twist. Narrative shifts are great for television, so great that it is irresistible to manufacture them in the absence of actual shifting narratives.
(Journalistic symbiosis with Trump has a long history, by the way. Ever since the New York Times compared him to Robert Redford in 1976, before writing in 1989 that The Art of the Deal made one “believe in the American Dream again,” Trump has been offering the press great stories, and the press have dutifully printed them. Trump knows the ins and outs of media as well as anyone alive, and has been phenomenally successful at using the news to his advantage in order to build his celebrity and, ultimately, his power.)
Anybody who believes that CNN’s rhetorical commitment to journalism is actually serious should read the Hollywood Reporter‘s account of Zucker’s plans for the network. Serious adversarial reporting such as Jake Tapper’s has a place because Tapper successfully draws viewers. But the rest of the network’s plans have barely any connection to anything resembling journalism. Its future is in stand-up comics (W. Kamau Bell) and TV chefs (Anthony Bourdain—I love him, but that’s what he is.) They’re paying 25 million dollars to a YouTube vlogger named Casey Neistat, a man whose specialty appears to be giddily trying out incredibly expensive goods and services on camera, and whose plans for how to use the $25 million are inscrutably vague and buzzword-laden. To bolster their investigative reporting, CNN poached a team from BuzzFeed who had “broken several major stories, including Trump’s appearance in a soft-core Playboy video.” (A consequential scoop if there ever was one.)
But while the network’s preference for popularity over integrity would seem undeniable, CNN editorial VP Andrew Morse has insisted that it isn’t what it looks like: “We are decidedly not in the clickbait business… We don’t do cat videos, we don’t do waterskiing squirrels.” Morse might be a little more believable if the network’s politics section didn’t literally run headlines like “Haha Guys, This Bird Looks Like Donald Trump.” (He might also want to check the network archives before confidently declaring that CNN is free of cat and squirrel-based news stories; in fact, CNN is the perfect place to go for a “Squirrels Eating Potato Chips” video, and in the weeks before the election they were literally running stories like “Here’s The Whole Election In Cat GIFS.”)
The point here is not that there is something wrong with providing access to amusing cat photos or clips of squirrels noshing on Pringles. It is simply that CNN is a company, not a public service, and it can be expected to act like a company. Its aim is to produce content that people will watch. Sometimes the public’s taste will coincide with the public good. But not too often. And the rise of somebody like Donald Trump, who constitutes both a unique threat to human wellbeing and a unique opportunity for compelling television, heightens the tension between the journalistic and economic motivations of CNN. And since it’s the economic dimension that directs most corporate action, especially when there are billions of dollars to be made, CNN has a lot to gain from being just antagonistic enough toward Trump to guarantee some good entertainment without being so antagonistic as to bring him down and have to return to C-SPAN levels of thrilling political discourse. Thus to use Moonves’s formulation, in the Trump era, what’s “bad for America” is great for CNN.
The fact that CNN will never be good for humanity is not really the fault of the people who work at CNN. After all, it’s hard to see how they could do anything differently. (Though, to their credit, they have experimented with some impressively elevated programming.) Once your mandate is to get viewers, you’ve already got a pernicious conflict of interest, and the quest for viewers (or clicks) is endemic to contemporary American media. So much is driven by the pursuit of eyes on the page or screen, and anyone working within that system will struggle to do things that are morally necessary but don’t really attract a viewership.
This is a very old criticism, but I think in many ways it is a correct one. (The most clichéd sentiments are also often the truest sentiments.) When the production of media is motivated by profit, the temptations to sacrifice integrity are going to be great. In the case of Donald Trump, these temptations will be all but irresistible. An age that requires resistance therefore requires independent nonprofit media. Economics still runs the world, and behind the apparent war between CNN and the Trump administration is a relationship just as agreeable as that of the clownfish and the sea anemone.