On Monday, CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves remarked in a conference in San Francisco that the current presidential election and coverage of Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Moonves may have been uniquely honest in expressing how ratings and revenue guide news coverage, but CBS is by no means unique in their slanted coverage. The rampant corporate influence on news coverage this election cycle threatens the integrity of journalism and American democracy.
The media’s focus on the most bombastic moments of the election has tilted its coverage disproportionately toward Trump. News shows, such as “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press,” are inundated with phone calls from Trump, replacing in-person interviews for soundbites. TV news channels wait with bated breath for his bellicose yet admittedly entertaining speeches. They cut from or even choose not to air other candidates’ speeches in favor of Trump’s. Though not all candidates are equally newsworthy, the overexposure of Donald Trump indicates that the media occasionally forgets there even are other candidates worth covering. More importantly, the sheer volume of uncritical coverage, including long swaths of uninterrupted broadcasts of Trump townhalls, changes the priority of the press from a critical analyst to a political soapbox feeding the corporate machine.
More than just shoddy journalism, the excessive coverage of Trump impedes the democratic process. Media coverage plays an enormous role in shaping the way Americans view candidates, and the free airtime Trump has received is worth billions in equivalent commercial spending, more than all other current candidates combined. Moonves may gloat about the amount of advertisement revenue CBS is receiving, but Trump is having the last laugh: the press is effectively funding Trump’s commercial campaign. To allow one candidate to practically monopolize coverage belies the duty of the press to fairly cover all important candidates, not just the most entertaining ones. Hillary Clinton has received more votes than Donald Trump, but it is Trump’s swaying of voters that has been hyped. After last week’s weighty primaries, the major cable networks all eschewed a Bernie Sanders speech in favor of a vacant stage, awaiting Trump’s entrance. Media bias is hard to deny when one candidate’s speech gets bumped for another candidate’s empty podium. Journalism and democracy give voice to the voiceless, and when the former fails in this duty, the latter suffers.
The media is never a neutral observer of American politics, but an active participant in the democratic process. In the best of conditions, the media enhances public debate, moderating public discourse and covering candidates. The corporate system, however, places the short term profit motive above all else. The ratings-crazed sensationalism influencing the election can only further alienate Americans from mass media. Moonves may be right that, in the short term, slanted coverage is good business, but in the long run what is bad for America is also bad for journalism.
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