In March of 2014, CNN became the laughingstock of the chattering classes with its wall-to-wall coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370. The network aired, on seeming repeat, a digital simulation of a Boeing 777 rising out of the clouds as eerie music played and talking heads speculated on what might have happened to the aircraft. With scant information, on-air talent scrambled for things to say. On one occasion, Don Lemon hosted a segment about the possibility of a black hole having swallowed the plane. On another, he wondered whether the disappearance was an act of God.
Things got more ludicrous. CNN tried to rent a real, live 777 for its coverage, but settled on smaller props -- a toy model about a foot long that Lemon played with at his desk and a larger model that anchors maneuvered around on set to talk about the plane’s features -- as well as a flight simulator in Canada, which it used to demonstrate to viewers how to turn off a 777’s transponder. CNN even deployed a countdown clock à la “24” to tick down the minutes until the plane’s black box might die.
CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker defended the obsessive coverage by pointing to spiking ratings. “I think that if people want to be critical of CNN for over-covering a story, that's totally fine with us," Zucker told Mashable at the time. "Clearly, the audience has spoken and said that what CNN did was correct.”
With Donald Trump, the ratings-driven psychosis is more widespread. Trump himself is part of the problem: he dubbed himself a “ratings machine” in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter and hastens to tell interviewers he should be getting paid for raking in viewers. But on Sunday, NBC also ran an “exclusive” interview with the reality TV star on “Meet the Press”; and the next day, sister network MSNBC played the same B-roll of interviewer Chuck Todd in Trump’s private plane an astonishing 51 times. Todd's interview garnered the show its highest ratings in a year and a half.
While it was MSNBC that seemed to descend into self-parody earlier this week, all the major news networks have covered Trump’s every move -- from receiving a call for jury duty to flying into Iowa in his helicopter -- in such detail it’s come to feel like a Trump telethon.
Like CNN’s Malaysian Airlines flight 370 coverage, the media’s coverage of Trump seems to illustrate, as in a child’s primer, the problem with having ratings dictate coverage.
Unlike the Malaysian Airlines flight 370 craze, however, the media's Trump obsession isn't just harmless fodder for “The Daily Show.” In fact, it has had a substantial effect on the political process. As John Sides pointed out at The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Trump’s poll numbers began to rise -- and have continued to inch upward -- only after he became a fixture on all the news channels. The media is fueling the Trump phenomenon, which it justifies by pointing to spectacular ratings.
The ratings-chasing game isn't new. The demands of the market have weighed on journalism since the dawn of the television news broadcast. But the Internet has accustomed consumers to getting what they want. Organizations like Fox News have made their livelihood -- and beat competitors -- by feeding viewers a steady diet of right-wing fluff.
Journalism's role as a public service has largely persisted because those in positions of power -- news executives and producers -- has sought to balance the quest for ratings with the duty to inform the public about matters of substance. But with the networks’ 24-hour Trump binge, that sense of duty seems to be in short supply.