Politics & Policy

Les Moonves Exposes the Trump Media Game

CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves (David McNew/Getty)

Heading into this week, Donald Trump had spent merely $1.6 million to run ads in six Super Tuesday states.

For any other primary candidate, this would almost assuredly have been political suicide unless he proved able to harvest media attention from somewhere else. Yet Trump manages to not only survive this media environment but thrive in it.

Fox News granted two nights of town-hall coverage to GOP’s primary candidates to fight over. The night before, MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski had allotted a full primetime hour to Trump.

On the eve of Super Tuesday, Trump sat down in person for an interview with Sean Hannity. On the same night, Trump’s wife, Melania, was sitting down for an interview with Anderson Cooper; this was fresh off the heels of her interview with Mika Brzezinski on Morning Joe.

The  Sunday-morning news shows allow Trump to call in for interviews, something practically unheard of for presidential candidates. Yet Chuck Todd, George Stephanopoulos, and Chris Wallace all allow Trump to do so. And last year, CNN even shelved its long-planned tenth-anniversary Hurricane Katrina special hosted by Anderson Cooper. In its place, they aired a post-Trump-rally special with Don Lemon.

TMZ, both online and on their television show, routinely run segments on Trump, as does ET! Greta Van Susteren has frequently invited Trump’s sons on as guests, either in the studio, via satellite, or on the phone. CNN and MSNBC carry Trump’s campaign rallies in full — and Fox, too. Media outlets breathlessly hang on his every word and insult and bombastic threat or incitement, and then they become instantly appalled when one of their own is choke-slammed to the ground by Trump security guards. Such reactions from them are telling.

New York magazine columnist Frank Rich declared on CNN that Trump wasn’t stealing oxygen from other candidates, because he “was the oxygen.” Trump was the one making the race interesting, according to Rich. But interesting to whom? Persuasive evidence suggests that there is a direct correlation between Trump’s poll numbers and his media coverage compared with the media and polls for the rest of the field.

When Trump happily sits down with Rolling Stone — a magazine that has published fawning interviews with Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders and that also featured each as a cover star — his supporters exult over how easily Trump is playing the media. Saturday Night Live — a show that weekly offers backhanded praise of Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders and that portrays Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio as greasy Latin dancers — gave Trump a full episode, inviting him to host.

The coverage of Trump is so lopsided that it’s impossible to deny any more. According to NewsBusters and the Media Research Center, 62 percent of all Super Tuesday evening network news coverage (NBC, CBS, ABC) went to Donald Trump alone. For the entire month of February, Trump accumulated more than 180 minutes on those newscasts, accounting for more than 50 percent of the coverage. Marco Rubio was second, with 67 minutes; and Ted Cruz was third, with 62 minutes.

The problem isn’t that Trump is getting the coverage. Supporters of Trump no doubt see statistics like this and argue that he’s the front-runner and therefore deserves lots of coverage. This is true. But what Trump’s supporters either don’t understand or simply don’t care about is why he is getting it.

Robert Thompson, director of the Belier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, offered a perceptive analysis to The Wrap, a news site that covers Hollywood.

The Apprentice was very good for NBC. . . . It fashioned and reshaped Donald Trump for a new audience, many of whom didn’t even know who he was when that show started. . . . Now Zucker is at CNN and, once again, seems to be using Donald Trump to both of their benefits.

CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves explained it in blunter terms to the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco (as The Hollywood Reporter originally reported): “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Moonves elaborated even more on what Trump’s rise means for his network. The Hollywood Reporter wrote:

Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb throwing,” and he hopes it continues. “Most of the ads are not about issues. They’re sort of like the debates,” he said.

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?#…#The money’s rolling in and this is fun,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” said Moonves. “Donald’s place in this election is a good thing,”

“There’s a lot of money in the marketplace,” the exec said of political advertising so far this presidential season.

Moonves just happened to give the exact same quote at a conference on entertainment law in Los Angeles in March of 2012. Referring to Citizens United, he declared “Super PACs may be bad for America, but theyre very good for CBS.

Last August, Moonves even foreshadowed the oncoming media-induced Trump when, in a CBS quarterly-earnings conference call, he declared, reportedly to applause: “The coming election cycle will clearly ‘Trump’ anything we’ve ever seen before.”

Perhaps this would be a good place to mention that Les Moonves is also a self-declared Clinton friend. In 2001, CBS quoted Moonves as acknowledging, “I’ve had numerous chats with President Clinton over the past few years. . . . He is a friend of mine.”

Trump supporters who believe their candidate is the anti-establishment destroyer of media are being conned, and the con is being perpetrated by the people they hate the most: the Clintonistas of network media.

Moonves is signaling very clearly that his intention is to saturate the market with Trump, which translates to Web traffic and eventually to votes. He’s not interested in what conservative candidates have to say policy-wise or politically. The casual Kardashian voter isn’t attuned to an endorsement by Jeff Sessions or a hashtag on Twitter. They are paying attention to outlets such as ET!, TMZ, Inside Edition, the CBS evening news, CNN, and MSNBC, where Trump’s quotes about shooting voters on Fifth Avenue are played ad nauseam.

Trump supporters who believe their candidate is the anti-establishment destroyer of media are being conned, and the con is being perpetrated by the people they hate the most — the Clintonistas of network media. Not only are these people generally hostile to conservatism. They also are not content to simply sit on the sidelines and objectively report what candidates say and do. Recall Dan Rather and Mary Mapes, who took it upon themselves in 2004 to run an unverified story about George W. Bush’s military service. In charge of CBS at the time? Les Moonves.

Is it possible, however, that conservatives, in the eight short months between July 2015 and today, have beaten down the media bias of the past 30 years and entered the mainstream at long last? Or is more likely that networks are happily using Trump’s always-provocative sound bites to confirm every nasty anti-conservative cliché they’ve nurtured for decades? If you guessed Option Two, you’re sane: Network media are actively engineering the Republican primaries and choosing the candidate they believe will be best suited to go up against Hillary Clinton — and lose.

MSNBC doesn’t put Donald Trump on their network almost daily, and Trump doesn’t thank Chris Matthews for being “fair” to him, because MSNBC or Trump suddenly have the best interests of conservatives in mind. In 2012, CNN was all too happy to put Candy Crowley on a debate stage to defend Barack Obama from Mitt Romney. Thus year, CNN invited former American Idol contestant Clay Aiken to give analysis on Super Tuesday. Aiken is a failed democratic candidate for Congress (he ran and lost in 2014), and, like Trump, his main experience is as a reality-TV star. This is all thanks to CNN head Jeff Zucker, an old Bill Clinton friend who gives Trump airtime as a way of making millions in ad revenue while simultaneously helping to put another Clinton into the White House.

Trump’s thrice-repeated refusal to repudiate David Duke’s endorsement, in his recent interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, led to a social-media spike, Twitter trends, and Chris Christie’s canceling a CNN interview scheduled for the next day. It also gave Democratic and progressive media a perfectly crafted sound bite that every Republican and conservative individual and outlet will be forced to defend as long as Trump is in the public eye (in other words, forever).

Every network show and every news host wants exactly that kind of moment from Trump. The more he appears on their sets, the more likely it is they will get it. America loves a broadcasted car wreck. Except this time, the country is the car.

Recall that the media jubilantly raised the flag of revolution when two of their own were arrested by police while filing their stories from a McDonald’s in Ferguson. Trump supporters are willfully blinding themselves if they think the same media that sympathize with protesters — and that relish getting arrested (the two were quickly released) — won’t savage a man who promises to pass anti–First Amendment laws to stop writers from saying mean things about him. Naturally, as soon as Trump is the only Republican left, the media will shred him.

Trump supporters aren’t a rabid anti-media crowd ready to rise up and take down the biased mainstream media. They are the medias target audience.

Trump supporters aren’t a rabid anti-media crowd ready to rise up and take down the biased mainstream media. They are the target audience. And it’s working better than even the most ardent leftists could ever have imagined.

No one has ever denied Trump’s ability as a master marketer and spokesperson. Arguably, marketing himself is the only thing he’s succeeded at in his business career. His airline fails, his steak line fails, his magazine fails, his bottled-water line fails, his football league folds, his casinos go bankrupt, and his university bankrupts people, yet Trump the media personality continues, with the help of an NBC television show

Like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, the media count on Trump to go on TV, tell the people he will give them everything, throw a big parade with giant balloons, and then in the end gas everybody to death. And the same media Trump claims he hates will be all too happy to be there to film everyone choking (note to Trump: It’s spelled C-H-O-K-I-N-G). 

Mainstream network media and Les Moonves are no friends to conservatives. What does it say that they have become Donald Trump’s best friend?

Stephen L. Miller is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He publishes The Wilderness, which focuses on viral politics and social media.

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