Trump and mediatization


Prof Geoffrey Baym

Professor and chair of the Department of Media Studies and Production at Temple University (USA). He is the author of From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News, and numerous articles and chapters on the changing face of television news and US political discourse.


US2016 - Section 1

Section 1: Media

In 2007, the short-lived Fox News satire program The Half-Hour News Hour opened with a fantasy skit featuring a President Rush Limbaugh on his first day in the Oval Office. With the “joke” of the skit being that the right-wing radio host had somehow become President, Limbaugh calls for his Vice President, and in walks Ann Coulter, Limbaugh’s fellow provocateur. It was a layered moment, with Fox News – itself a hybrid blend of broadcast news, conservative advocacy, and entertainment spectacle – imagining the fusion of conservative attack media and actual political power.

Some eight years later, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, he abandoned the prepared speech his advisers had crafted for him, and instead offered his ad-lib rant about Mexican rapists and the need for a “beautiful” border wall. That, interestingly enough, was a direct invocation of Coulter’s anti-immigration screed ¡Adios, America!, which had been published two weeks earlier. Coulter herself was a Trump advisor and evangelist, promoting him unequivocally in her next book: In Trump We Trust. Coulter, of course, won’t be vice president, but the lines between presidential policy, political-entertainment media, and celebrity spectacle have become as profoundly fused as Fox had once imagined.

If we are to understand the phenomenon of a Trump presidency, then, we have to place it within the context of the melding of politics and entertainment. European scholars might call this mediatization – the culture-wide turn in which the organizing logic, institutional imperatives, and discursive practices of the media come to shape the very workings of the political system itself. Elsewhere, I have described this as “discursive integration” – a deep blending of once-discrete ways of talking about, knowing about, and acting within a world where politics, news, entertainment, commerce, and marketing have become inseparably intertwined.

Trump, as individual and as phenomenon, sits squarely at this point of intersection. His emergence as a public political figure well predates the 2016 campaign. Some date his decision to run for president to the 2011 White House Correspondence dinner, that weird hybrid of national politics, news media, and celebrity culture. Prior to that, though, Trump had long cultivated his public brand. Through the 1990s, he was the playboy: the swashbuckling negotiator imagined in Art of the Deal (1987) and the gold-plated ladies man constructed across media locales, including The Howard Stern Show and Playboy magazine. In the Bush years, when a neo-liberal ideology of corporate commerce rose to its global ascendance, Trump morphed into the mogul. For 11 years, he starred on NBC’s The Apprentice, the popular reality TV show from executive producer Mark Burnett, the man behind Survivor and Sarah Palin’s Alaska. There, as the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes, “Trump cultivated an image among middle-class Americans as a straight-shooting billionaire who had the bucks and the brass to stand up to anyone.” That perception of “bucks and brass” in turn led to Trump’s starring role on Fox News, where he used his weekly call-in segment on the propagandistic morning show Fox and Friends to aggressively push the Obama “birther” movement.

While many would understandably reject Trump’s media trajectory as legitimate qualification for the US presidency, the reality is that in an age of mediatization, standards of all sorts are being radically refashioned. That point is well understood by Trump’s long-time political adviser Roger Stone, who suggests that Trump’s time on The Apprenticewas “the greatest single asset to his presidential campaign.” There, Stone explains, “He’s perfectly made up. He’s perfectly coiffed. He’s perfectly lit. He’s in the high-back chair making tough decisions. What does he look like? He looks like a president.” To those of us who still want to envision the presidency as existing independently of what one “looks like” on television, Stone offers a rebuttal equally provocative and penetrating: “Now, I understand the elites say, ‘Oh, that’s reality TV.’ Voters don’t see it that way. Television news and television entertainment: it’s all television.”

It’s all television, Stone suggests, suggesting that in an age of mediatization, television entertainment is as viable a path to the height of political power as a record of public service used to be. It also emphasizes the point that commercial television news is structurally incapable of providing any pushback. The US television news industry, of course, gave Trump an estimated 2 billion dollars in free air time during the campaign in pursuit of their mutual interests. Proclaimed Les Moonves, the head of CBS TV (home to Burnett’s Survivor), the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. … Sorry,” he continued, “it’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

Moonves, and his frenemies at Fox News, have got their wish. The Donald Trump show will be on nightly, for at least the next four years.