Trump and the US media’s conflict of interest | US Election 2024

On the last day of the Republican National Convention in July 2016, which nominated Donald Trump as the GOP’s candidate for the presidential election, CNN’s Anderson Cooper led a panel of pundits commenting on the event. Among them was cotton-haired Jeffrey Lord, who was eager to report on a call he had had with Trump.

“He has a message for you, Anderson, that he is not pleased. He feels we are not accurately representing this convention,” Lord said on air. “He [asked] me to say that your ratings, our ratings at CNN, are up here because of his presence in the convention,” he added.

“There is no doubt about Donald Trump’s impact on ratings,” Cooper responded, amiably.

Trump’s assertion was not inaccurate. The year he first ran for election was the most profitable in CNN’s history. Interest in the new, unorthodox candidate – whether it was fascination, alarm, or glee – boosted profits for media outlets left and right. Online subscriptions soared for The New York Times and The Washington Post. Fox News’s ratings reached new highs.

The boost continued throughout the Trump presidency but wore off as soon as he left office.

The real estate mogul has now returned to the centre of American politics as the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party after Nikki Hailey dropped out of the race.

The possibility of another Trump term has led to a bout of public acknowledgements among media professionals that while the former president threatens democracy with his incessant falsehoods and norm-busting practices, he is actually good for business.

“In crude material terms,” The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote in January, “Donald Trump’s presidency benefited the media, with subscriptions, ratings and clicks all soaring.”

Acknowledgement is important, but stopping at that without changing conduct seems like a shrug of resignation, a self-serving free pass for coverage and business as usual to continue. Instead of soul-searching, we are getting disclaimers.

The words that even the thoughtful voices seem reluctant to use are “conflict of interest”. It is clear that media outlets stand to benefit from their coverage of Trump. That is bad for journalism and, by extension, for democracy.

As American journalist George Packer noted in a December article for the Atlantic, while newspapers and TV channels are raking in record profits from milking the Trump phenomenon, they are starting to resemble him. They have become more “solipsistic … divisive, and self-righteous”.

Journalism standards have declined as news is becoming “almost indistinguishable from fluff and lies” and media outlets are abandoning “independence for activism”, Packer wrote.

In effect, many media outlets have relinquished a core duty and privilege: determining what is newsworthy.

Much of the Trump coverage has been just click-bait in various incarnations, a ceaseless stream of alarm bells for the distressed liberals and catnip for the gleeful MAGA crowd. TV networks have aired hours of Trump’s rallies, unfiltered and unscrutinised. National newspapers have featured his tweets about political non-sequiturs on their front pages, online and in print.

Many in the news media have capitalised on the political polarisation that Trump stoked, further deepening it. Otherwise excellent journalists, like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, have too often slipped into unseemly editorialising monologues.

The media have increasingly mirrored the information bubbles of social media. That has worked better for ratings and clicks.

This type of profit-seeking coverage is not just bad for journalism, but also for democracy. The media’s fixation with Trump – his antics and insults, his taunts and vulgarities, his gleeful breach of norms – has indirectly affirmed a brand of politics that the former president embodies and thrives in.

He has turned political life into a mud-slinging arena where politicians are viewed as cynical, self-dealing hacks whose goal is to inflict the greatest humiliation possible on their opponents.

In this political environment, every policy – even benign public health measures like the face mask mandate during the pandemic – can become grounds for toxic, polarising politicking.

This type of political behaviour encourages voters to cast their ballots in accordance with a tribal vision of politics – one based not on merits but on rage.

As another Trump term emerges as a real possibility, US media outlets can and should do more than throw their arms up in resignation. If they are serious about addressing the conflict-of-interest problem, they should adopt what I will call the Lonely Planet test.

This test takes its name from the popular travel guide. In a 2010 lecture on how to improve trust in government, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, a prominent advocate of reforming Congress campaign finance laws, used Lonely Planet’s practices as an example.

Lonely Planet avoids any appearance of conflict of interest by assuring its readers that, among other practices, it does not “accept payment for listing or endorsing any place or business”. Lonely Planet understands that even a slight suspicion that it is making money from the places or businesses it features could undercut its credibility.

Media outlets should embrace a similar ethos. Editors should make sure that their editorial decisions are not profit-driven, uphold journalistic standards and are in the interest of the general public. They should scrutinise every potential story about Trump for “conflict of interest” by asking three questions.

Should we report on the story? If we do, do we benefit financially from it more than our average gain from other coverage? And if we do, would it benefit Trump and advance his brand of politics?

When it comes to Trump coverage, editors and journalists should lean towards the principle of less is more. Not just because that would restore proportionality in coverage, but also because it would reduce their outlet’s conflict of interest.

None of this guarantees that a second Trump term would be less polarising or less nerve-racking. The test I am proposing would mean, though, that media outlets can do more to preserve their integrity and the public’s trust.

For years, The Washington Post has put its Trump-era motto front and centre, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. But if the media continue on the current path and into another Trump term, democracy as well as journalism may suffer gravely in the glare of light, too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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