This week will be a stress test for a couple aspects of the media business.
As the Republican National Convention kicks off this evening, both newsrooms and the business side should be asking some complicated questions about the media's role in politics.
We have decades of research showing the symbiotic relationship to governance and media; from agenda setting theory to cultivation theory, media has historically played an important role in not just reporting what the government does, but how citizens are conditioned to think about the government and policies. The parties’ national conventions set the stage, literally and figuratively, for how America knows what it knows.
As Orwell wrote in 1946:
Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Bringing this into focus: at a time when the current administration has spent the last four years spinning lies and gaslighting Americans while creating and administering policies that don’t particularly line up with a “typical” governing philosophy (the traditional notions of Republicanism and conservatism are challenged daily by this administration), putting Trumpism on stage and devoting a week of “wall-to-wall” coverage presents important decisions for newsrooms and media companies that define themselves by reporting the closest thing to the truth.
Look, any political convention, by definition, will be light on facts as it tries to accomplish two things at once: tell a story about the candidate in the most positive light, while serving up “red meat” for its base (i.e., the issues that that party believes in; of course, 2020 being 2020, the GOP platform will leave in place its 2016 platform, going all-in to “enthusiastically support” the Trump agenda.)
Under normal circumstances, the political press frames conventions and the speeches made as part of the political process. This week, however, it’s a different game.
For example: knowing that many of the RNC speakers push convoluted philosophies at best, dangerous disinformation at worst, how will networks present that journalistic ideal to its viewers?
Amanda Carpenter, on CNN’s Reliable Sources yesterday, said that all the networks should plan on covering the RNC as a
major medical and political disinformation event based on two themes: one, the election is rigged; and two, that Donald Trump thinks that he has a miracle coronavirus cure underway. Both of these ideas are dangerous to our health and democracy.
Newsrooms, then, have to decide how to handle a list of speakers not known for embracing facts while at the same time air one of our political parties’ trade shows. Perhaps fact check?
If networks do cut away to fact check, "that presents an immediate imbalance" compared to how the Democratic National Convention was covered, noted Peter Hamby, a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and host at Snapchat's "Good Luck America." Hamby predicted that CNN and MSNBC will "both be up again" when it comes to viewership during the RNC.
[Reliable Sources host Brian] Stelter said, "The networks have the power to cut away" from the RNC this coming week if Trump begins to share false information." But Hamby disagreed, saying, "The President of the United States has the ultimate power," which surpasses news networks' abilities to decide to air his remarks or not.
As Columbia Journalism Review argues today, the DNC and RNC are not equivalent, and should not be treated as such:
Treating things that are not the same as if they are the same in the name of partisan balance hasbeen a recurring media error of the Trump era. The remedy is often clear cut: just report the truth, with as much context and as great a sense of proportion as you can muster. This imperative demands that when Trump lies on TV, networks correct him in real time, and/or yank him off air altogether.
CJR rightly concludes:
When Trump and his allies use this week’s Republican convention to lie about urgent matters of public health and election integrity—and it is a case of when—the networks’ first duty is to immediately correct the record. If they can’t find an elegant way of breaking into the programming, they should cut away entirely, and not fear doing so just because they didn’t treat the Democrats the same way. The theoretical purpose of partisan fairness norms is that they preserve the integrity of democratic choice; if we let bad actors use such norms to subvert democracy, then they literally become pointless. And that’s before we even get started on the wisdom of drinking bleach.
On the business side, the general election is usually a big revenue boost. In June, Magna predicted that the 2020 political season will generate $5 billion in ad revenue.
As Bloomberg reports in a piece about how the TV industry is dead:
That’s the good news for TV executives. While the internet will eclipse $1 billion in U.S. political ad sales for the first time this year, the bulk of that money (between $3 billion and $4 billion) will go to TV networks.
Last week, Very Serious Media People got upset that the Washington Post ran a homepage take over from Donald Trump.
Wait until they see the HPTOs over at the New York Times in September.
Multiple sources tell me that the Trump campaign is allegedly set to spend at least a million dollars on ads in the failing New York Times in September, including possibly several HPTOs. One source said that while the campaign wants to spend millions at the NYT, nothing has passed the paper’s Standards and Practices division. All of the language was inflammatory, apparently, so the paper hasn’t accepted the ads just yet.
I’ve reached out to both the NYT and the Trump campaign multiple times to confirm the buy and have yet to receive a response to my questions. I’ll update on the website should I hear back. But there’s a rich irony that the Trump campaign wants to spend so much money with a news organization which Trump frequently rails about.
And while the sales side isn’t particularly or even necessarily focused on the conventions as a money making tool, sales teams need to rethink their role in helping political candidates, generally, get their messages out.
This week will highlight the ongoing tension between the news media and the current state of the Republican party. No matter how the news organizations cover the RNC, or how they attempt to fact-check what will surely be a litany of lies, or how they refocus their role in a world that consistently fights against the spread of conspiracy theories, one thing is certain: Americans lose when lies are presented as facts.
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Blind Faith, “Well All Right”
Some interesting links:
The enduring, pernicious whiteness of true crime (The Appeal)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Stoked Washington’s Fears About TikTok (WSJ)
TikTok's Taking Legal Action Against the Trump Administration's Attempts to Ban the App in the US (Social Media Today)
U.S. Advertising Falls 14% In July, Most Moderate Rate Of Erosion Since March (MediaPost)
Advertisers scramble for backup plans ahead of NFL season kickoff (Reuters)
Covid-19 is dividing the American worker (WSJ)
Debt, eviction and hunger: Millions fall back into crisis as stimulus and safety nets vanish (WaPo)
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s editor’s letter in this month’s Vanity Fair (Vanity Fair)