hat would Donald Trump’s most devoted supporters do if they learned that ultra-rich liberals living in New York City are behind his campaign?
This is not a hypothetical question. The reason Trump has spent so little money on his candidacy is not that he’s “self-funding.” It’s because he has benefited enormously from what’s called earned media: television time he doesn’t pay for. The endless interviews, town halls, Saturday Night Live and late-show appearances, press conferences, debates—these extraordinary advantages have been given to Trump by the very individuals and institutions that anti-establishment voters are said to despise.
Why? It was Les Moonves, the chairman of CBS, who let us in on the answer. Moonves is worth some $300 million. He supports President Obama. But, during a call with investors in December, he had nothing but kind words to say about Trump. The amount of money CBS was poised to make off Trump was “pretty phenomenal,” Moonves said. A large field of Republican candidates benefits shareholders. “The more they spend, the better it is for us,” he said. “Go, Donald! Keep getting out there!” Trump didn’t need the encouragement.
It’s a virtuous cycle for Trump and the press barons. Trump benefits from earned media. The networks benefit from high ratings, which allow them to charge more for advertising. And all of the campaign ads and Super PAC and issue-advocacy spots desperately trying to stop Trump guarantee additional revenue. Imagine how sad Les Moonves must be that Michael Bloomberg has decided to forgo an independent presidential candidacy and has therefore deprived the networks of some $250 million in ad money. Moonves could have bought another house.
How much has the free publicity been worth to Trump? It’s impossible to calculate, and I am no good at math, but let’s try a thought experiment nevertheless. My friends tell me a 30-second television spot costs, say, $35,000. According to media blogger Eric Tyndall, who follows the network nightly news, “Donald Trump is by far the most newsworthy storyline of Campaign 2016, alone accounting for almost a third of all coverage.” Last year Trump enjoyed 327 minutes of coverage on the CBS, NBC, and ABC evening broadcasts. That’s 19,620 seconds, which amounts to 654 spots—worth $22,890,000.
Note that this calculation leaves out the network morning shows, to which Trump regularly calls in, as well as cable news, where Trump is omnipresent. The GDELT Project tracks mentions of the candidates using the Internet Television Archive. As I write, since entering the race in June 2015, Trump has been discussed 92,971 times on MSNBC, 82,369 times on CNN, and 60,002 times on Fox News Channel. Mentions of Trump outnumber those of his opponents by an incredible amount. Trump is to cable news in general what the search for the missing Malaysian jetliner was to CNN in particular—a horrible disaster story unfolding in real time that the networks cannot get enough of.
You will notice who has been absent from these calculations. The messages of the other Republican candidates have been drowned in the Trump tsunami. And then there are, lest we forget, the American people, who stand a chance of electing the most unqualified and most disliked president in their history. But hey, who’s keeping track? “It may not be good for America,” Moonves said in February, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”
I don’t think I’ve heard a more revealing comment about the 2016 election. Here’s the good liberal Moonves boosting the candidacy of a man whose politics and character repulse him, even as he acknowledges that what he is doing is bad for the country. And why? Profit.
Such behavior is worse than shortsighted. It is blind. And not only because Moonves and his fellow television moguls are willing to gamble with the fate of the country, and to risk the deeply unsettling prospect of making president a man whose coarseness of manner, volatility of temper, and eagerness to flout norms are not distractions from his campaign but the entirety of it.
By so blithely and condescendingly treating the Trump candidacy as little more than a joke by which the already rich and privileged stand to gain, Moonves is inadvertently confirming that candidacy’s portrayal of elites as self-interested and out of touch. His peculiar combination of sanctimony and greed is almost enough to make one want to see Trump elected, just so Moonves would have to deal with the consequences of the Frankenstein monster he has helped create. (I repeat: almost enough.)
How far we have traveled from the days of Charles Erwin Wilson, the General Motors executive who said at his confirmation hearing to be Eisenhower’s secretary of defense that he had always assumed what was good for GM was good for the country. Now we live in the era of Moonves, who not only sees the interests of his company and his country as divergent but also simply does not seem to care that what helps one might harm the other.
Over the course of the last year, Donald Trump has benefited enormously from the selfishness of many individuals and institutions, and from the willingness of voters and candidates and media personalities to put the potential of short-term reward ahead of long-term danger. The con has become so complicated that it is becoming hard to sort out. Who is playing whom? The liberal media executives boosting a candidate they hate, the reality star promoting his brand, or the Republican voters backing a man who has never held political office and has no firm convictions beyond “winning”? However CSI: Mar-a-Lago ends, I can tell you that no one, not even Les Moonves, will be laughing.