This morning, Ross Douthat contends that the recriminations and criticism of Facebook and other social-media networks is letting television news off the hook for the way it assisted Donald Trump’s rise.
Where did so many people originally get the idea that Trump was the right guy to fix our manifestly broken government? Not from Russian bots or targeted social media ad buys, but from a prime-time show that sold itself as real, and sold him as a business genius. Forget unhappy blue collar heartlanders; forget white nationalists and birthers: The core Trump demographic might just have been Republicans who watched “The Apprentice,” who bought the fake news that his television program and its network sponsors gladly sold them.
Beyond The Apprentice, it’s worth remembering that for most of the Bush and Obama presidencies, Donald Trump was a regular featured guest on news programs and not touted as a partisan Republican, hate-monger, or ranting fool. NBC’s Today show regularly had him on to promote The Apprentice and let him vent about whatever else was on his mind. CNN’s Larry King would regularly have him on and ask about the news of the day, like what the U.S. government should be doing about Somali pirates — as if Trump was some sort of naval-warfare expert. On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren asked him how he would negotiate a deal to avoid a government shutdown. He was a frequent guest of Regis Philbin. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “most fascinating” people of 2011, alongside Kim Kardashian.
Even publications like the Guardian did quasi-admiring can-you-believe-this-character profiles. Rolling Stone was happy to interview him. The smallest bits of news from Trump-world generated positive coverage in the biggest publications: In 2010, the New York Times’ advertising section did a profile of Melania unveiling, “a line of jewelry and watches bearing her name and available exclusively through QVC, the home shopping network, and its Web site.”
Not even the Birther theories made Donald Trump persona non grata on these programs; it just made him more interesting and unpredictable and good for ratings.
By autumn 2016, the argument from Democrats and their allies in the media was that Donald Trump represented a menace to democracy and American values — a not-so-subtle xenophobe and racist, a demagogue, full of authoritarian instincts and petty vendettas, ignorant and erratic. But television had never before invited white supremacists to host Saturday Night Live, welcomed raging demagogues to laugh with Jimmy Fallon on the couch of The Tonight Show, or invited authoritarians to 30 Rock to do softball interviews on morning shows. Donald Trump, megalomaniacal threat to democracy? He gave directions to Kevin in Home Alone 2! . He did cameos in The Little Rascals and Bobby Brown music videos! Trump had enjoyed the pop-culture and big-media seal of approval for decades!
Television’s coverage of Donald Trump from the 1980s to early 2015 portrayed Trump as a phenomenal business success, endlessly knowledgeable and fascinating, insightful, shrewd, entertaining, and funny — a larger-than-life character. Why are so many baffled that Trump managed to turn that image into a path to the presidency?