Beware the Television - Political Complex

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It all began here (image courtesy Wiki Commons)

Yesterday, Les Moonves, the Chairman and CEO of CBS speaking about the election said

"It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."

"For us," the Chairman went on, "economically speaking, Donald's place in the election is a good thing."

And I am sure it is. Good for CBS at any rate. Good for the nation? That's another story.

But you can't blame CBS. They are in the business of making money, and Donald Trump is a ratings star and this a money maker for them. The more exciting, the more entertaining the candidates, the higher the ratings and the more money that pours in.

It's a great relationship, not just for CBS, but for television in general. Trump and TV.

In 1961, as he exited the Presidency after eight years, Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the danger of what he called The Military-Industrial Complex. That was, the tight relationship between the growing Department of Defense Machine and the various industries that fed them. It was symbiotic, and to The General's mind, extremely dangerous. For Eisenhower, there was nothing to control its spiraling growth and influence on the nation.

Today, we have a new relationship. The Television-Political Complex. Equally symbiotic and to my mind, equally dangerous.

Donald Trump is clearly a product of television. He has no political experience, but he has vast amounts of television experience. He knows how to entertain the crowds and he knows how to get ratings. The other candidates are lost in the world of TV. Can you imagine The Ted Cruz Show? The Hillary Clinton Show? Not even on Public Broadcasting. Not even on Public Access.

So Trump loves television. It has been his way of getting directly to the public. It has allowed him to bypass the conventional political processes, avoid the influence (and moderating nature) of the party. And conversely, television loves Donald. He is a ratings machine for them.

As a consequence of this, television news has been reluctant to do anything that might kill the goose that keeps laying the golden eggs.

It may have been very late in the game (perhaps too late) for Marco Rubio to start to bring up unpleasant facts surrounding The Donald such as his Trump University or his peculiar relationship with foreign workers (among other things). Rubio did not just discover these things. They are all a matter of public record. But no television 'journalist' ever took Trump to task in the nearly eight months that this national media circus has been going on. That would have been, well, akin to risking losing their number one rated property. No sane business does that.

And Trump understands how the 'business' works.

Just last week, speaking into an unknown open mic during the commercial break, Trump chatted with Morning Joe's co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzesinski. The transcript was picked up by Harry Shearer:

"You don't want me to do the ones--with deportation?" Brzezinski said.

After some cross-talk, co-host Joe Scarborough said, "We really have to get you some questions."

"That's right, nothing too hard Mika," Trump interjected.

"Okay," Brzezinski said.

Of course, nothing too hard.

We don't want to alienate our best rating TV personality. He might not come back again. He might go to the competition.

Well, as Les Moonves notes, television is a business and it is about making money.

This was not always the case for TV news and journalism.

Once, an eon ago, broadcast news was SUPPOSED to lose money.

That's right.

Networks received the enormously valuable broadcast licenses in exchange for providing news and public affairs at their own cost. That was the deal. So news and journalism were protected from the evil influence of commercial pressure.

Ken Auletta catalogues the decline and fall of TV news in his book, Three Blind Mice

But that was a LONG time ago.

Today, it is all about the ratings and making money and keeping the audience glued to the set (or the smart phone or the tablet or wherever it comes in). And the more exciting it is, the more entertaining it is, the better the 'show', the better the ratings and the more the news organizations like it.

And the politicians?

The great lesson from the Trump Experience (no matter how it turns out) is that if the candidate isn't entertaining, the candidate loses.

Trump has set a terrible and frightening machine in motion now. The key to electoral success is, like Shock Jocks, to get the nation's attention. Amuse. Entertain. Say crazy things. The crazier the better.

The problem is that holding the attention of a national audience inundated with media means you have to keep upping the shock value. And Trump, no matter how this all turns out, is but the leading edge. By the next election cycle, his 'shocking' (and ratings beating) antics will seem old hat. What can someone do to top his performance and hold the audience?

We are no longer electing a leader, we are electing an Entertainer In Chief.

And we are going to get what we deserve, what we seem to crave now...

a great show.

Previously published in TheVJ.com