On Friday October 14, Harvard Institute of Politics hosted Jeff Zucker, president of CNN, moderated by political correspondent Lois Romano for a discussion on media and politics. Like most political conversations in the past year, Donald Trump took up a lot of the time, 22 out of 40 minutes to be exact, not including the Q and A segment.
Romano’s first question to Zucker was a question that many journalists, including myself, have written and wondered about since the start of Trump’s campaign: Did CNN enable Trump’s success?
The media has taken the blame since the beginning for enabling Trump, CNN in particular. Before Trump announced his presidency, CNN went all in on coverage of the potential candidate. The network held interview after interview with Trump while lacking on all other candidates, getting his campaign rolling from the start. When questioned about this particular time in CNN’s coverage, Zucker agrees that the network’s news was very much centered around Trump.
“We recognized much earlier than most that there was a phenomenon with Trump so yes we did give him a lot of coverage. To our defense, when we asked him for an interview, he said yes. Other runners said no and he said yes so why should I punish Trump?…I do definitely reject the idea that we are the reason he got the nomination.”
Zucker continues to say that the media cannot be the sole reason Trump got the nomination. The 13 or so million voters are ultimately what got him there. And he’s right. No body can prove whether or not the heightened media coverage of Trump actually won the nomination for him, but the statistics on his coverage are pretty shocking.
The 2016 Campaign Candidate Television Tracker updates statistics daily on each candidate and the air time they get on news organizations. From then to now, Trump has topped the charts. Ethically, how do these news organizations claim to be independent if the majority of the coverage is on one candidate and not the others?
Romano continued the conversation with CNN airing most of Trump’s rallies on live TV. Zucker openly admitted that it was a mistake to broadcast so many of his unedited campaign rallies in the early months. She then asked Zucker if he put them on for the ratings or the news value to which he responded with a long pause. After the audience had a good laugh, he responded,
“It was for both – because you never knew what he was gonna say so there was an attraction to put them on the air. Everyone loved it and knowing the ratings were up didn’t hurt.”
To me, I was surprised he admitted this. What he’s talking about is sensationalism. If he had asked himself, “Is this the most newsworthy thing going on in the world right now?” I highly doubt the answer would be yes. But was this going to drive the highest ratings? Definitely. From my standpoint, I do see an ethical issue with his decision. Yes, it was harmless. Yes, it was accurate. Yes, it was news. But was the motivation to inform the public?
Now this is not to bash CNN. Because media is a business, the ethical dilemma of rightness vs. ratings will always be prevalent. Every media outlet has been guilty of airing and publicizing Trump more than other candidates. And maybe that is because all of his “newsworthy” words and actions. But I do believe the media has to draw a line somewhere for the sake of remaining independent. In this case, independence means something different. It isn’t a matter of the media supporting one candidate over the other. It has to do with the amount of coverage. The media making Trump a constant news story has made him accessible to millions of viewers. I like how the Huffington Post describes the issue saying,
“This kind of circus-like media attention is good for ratings, for advertising revenues, for circulation and for Mr. Trump. It enables Mr. Trump to spin—with ever-increasing brilliance—the myth of his invincible persona.”
What the Huffington Post is saying is that the media has given Trump more power than he already had. Exhibit A: he was the main topic at the event with Jeff Zucker. Exhibit B: he is the main topic of this ethics event coverage post. Trump’s presence and power is everywhere.
The conversation, which turned into somewhat of a debate during the questions segment, eventually settled down. Ending with a question about the ongoing issue of money vs. public interest, Zucker summed up what he believes to be ethical in an eloquent and honest way answering,
“Yes we are running a business but we are also running an important journalism organization. We may not get it right every time, but it’s about doing the right thing not about the bottom line.”