Donald Trump has been elected president, but the big winner this election was the media.
It’s hard to see how Trump’s victory could’ve happened without the unprecedented free media he received – nearly $3 billion through April, according to one estimate.
And networks were eager to do it, with the increased viewership he brought.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” CBS president Leslie Moonves said of Trump’s candidacy. “What can I say?... The money’s rolling in, and this is fun.”
While the media at large benefited from increased ratings and clicks from Trump’s run, CNN led the way.
From the moment Trump announced in June – calling Mexicans criminals and rapists – CNN provided him with disproportionate airtime.
“Honestly, I think I get better press from CNN than I do Fox,” Trump told Fox in December. “I don’t know why.”
CNN president Jeff Zucker said the coverage was appropriate since “the frontrunner always merits the most amount of attention.”
But CNN’s warped coverage started from the get-go, well before Trump attained the top Republican spot, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Things were bleak at CNN before the campaign, with Wall Street analysts questioning whether there was even a need for the network.
Wall Street’s not asking that anymore.
CNN is on track to post a 2016 profit of nearly $1 billion.
“This is the best year in the history of cable news,” Zucker recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “I think CNN has outshined everybody.”
AT&T even highlighted CNN in announcing its attempted $85 billion takeover of Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. (The deal must receive regulatory approval, which Trump has vowed to block; Trump’s opposition comes on the heels of CNN’s switch to more critical reporting on Trump during the general election.)
In 2016, when Zucker hitched his network’s wagon to Trump’s campaign, it was actually a repeat performance.
In 2004, as president of NBC Entertainment, Zucker brought Trump into millions of American homes as host of The Apprentice.
The show, which Trump hosted for 14 seasons, portrayed him as “the embodiment of everything that Americans are taught to revere,” Glenn Greenwald told Democracy Now.
“This is the person who for decades has been a racist, a demagogue, a con artist, and yet NBC turned him into this swaggering hero, at great profit to itself,” said Greenwald.
It was a level of exposure most candidates could only dream of, and Trump was paid for it.
Zucker paid his friend $1 million per episode, over $200 million in total, at least according to Trump.
“Make no mistake,” writes Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “There would be no Trump-the-politician without Trump-the-TV-star. One begot the other.”
At 2 a.m. election night, with Trump nearing victory, Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told supporters that Clinton would have nothing to say till the morning.
That outraged CNN analyst Corey Lewandowski. When fellow analyst Van Jones tried to comfort Lewandowski, he was met with anger.
“Corey, you won,” Jones offered quietly.
“Say it again, I didn’t hear you,” Lewandowski demanded, before continuing his finger-wagging lecture, as Jones counseled him to try bringing the country together, to no avail.
Lewandowski isn’t just a CNN analyst, he’s also Trump’s former campaign manager (and current adviser).
The exchange is disturbing for what it may foretell of a Trump administration. Fueled by anger, it’s unclear whether the Trump campaign will be able to pivot out of attack mode and reach out to the rest of the country (including Clinton voters, who actually numbered more than Trump voters).
Fresh off of being let go by the Trump campaign in June, CNN hired Lewandowski to offer on-air analysis, despite the fact that he signed a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting him from criticizing his former boss.
“I’m sorry, that is outrageous,” New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet recently said of the arrangement, calling Lewandowski a “political shill.” “I cannot fathom that.”
But Zucker will hear none of this. He claims there’s a “bias” against Lewandowski, and that Democrats associated with Clinton get a pass for their on-air advocacy.
DNC and CNN
CNN’s questionable journalism has been bipartisan.
Donna Brazile, the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee, was a paid contributor to the network.
But CNN let Brazile go shortly after Wikileaks published hacked emails from Brazile’s account showing her colluding with the Clinton campaign.
In one instance, ahead of a CNN-sponsored town hall with Clinton and her Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders, Brazile sent an email to the Clinton campaign with the subject line, “From time to time I get the questions in advance.” The email provided, word-for-word, one of the questions.
Good Times Can’t Last
With the election over, Zucker anticipates CNN’s viewership will decline 25 percent. But a more realistic figure may be closer to 50 percent, which was CNN’s audience decline after the 2008 election.
Other news outlets are expecting dramatic drop offs as well, leading to less ad revenue, and possible layoffs.
Meanwhile media executives are rewarded for a banner year. It was one which saw the media, led by CNN, enable the two most disliked candidates in modern history to capture their parties’ nominations.