Column: Culture of reality TV hurts journalism and led to rise of Donald Trump

The media has given Trump massive amounts of free publicity, partly because consumers want entertainment instead of facts.

When CNN anchor Jake Tapper said Friday that Donald Trump pulled a “political rickroll” on the media, it wasn’t even funny.

The Republican presidential nominee had said he would make a statement about “birtherism,” the false claim that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He did renounce the idea, but with several catches. Trump didn’t indicate any remorse for spending five years harping on the lie, and instead he told a different lie when he said his opponent, Hillary Clinton, started it and he “finished it.”

All three major broadcast news outlets spent 20 minutes waiting for the statement while Trump advertised his new hotel and received endorsements from several military veterans. Like Tapper said, it was the political equivalent of sending people a link to what they think is something serious but is actually just the music video for the Rick Astley song “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

Trump tricked the media, yet again, into giving him free publicity. Ever since he started his presidential run 15 months ago, he has dominated news coverage with one ridiculous stunt after another. The New York Times reported in March that Trump had already received $2 billion worth of free media attention, and that was six months ago.

It’s hard to believe this was anything but deliberate, since Trump has been a reality TV star for years, and Americans love reality TV. We love it so much, in fact, that in August the Huffington Post made a chilling prediction. Because the American people value vacuous entertainment over intellectual engagement, as reflected in our TV choices, the Post said Trump will undoubtedly be elected in November.

Last month on the talk show “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver discussed news organizations’ sacrifice of serious reporting for what consumers want to see and hear. Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi recently made a similar point when he said that journalism, especially political reporting, has dumbed itself down in order to survive the modern era of clickbait, the Kardashians and shows like “The Bachelor.” Both Taibbi and Oliver raised the point that while the news media really shouldn’t stray from its purpose to gain ratings and revenue, it does so in order not to go out of business.

The trap is as toxic for the populace as it is for the media because it perpetuates the desire and production of superficial content. This creates a vicious cycle. If journalists tried to break it by ditching false balance and the entertainment factor in order to report only facts, the public would most likely take little to no interest and journalism would die out.

It’s the people’s responsibility to fix this problem. We need to change our priorities. We need to be willing to give up entertainment in exchange for facts, whether we like them or not. We need to give journalism what it needs most in order to carry out its duty: an attentive, engaged audience.

Without the fear of losing money or consumers, the news media would have the capacity to figure out what’s worth covering and what isn’t, making it much harder for people like Trump to control coverage. Since he’s a major-party presidential nominee and the election is fewer than two months away, one can hardly blame the media for falling for his prank on Friday. However, if circumstances had been different for both the media and the public, he probably wouldn’t have received so much airtime before and during the primary season. It’s not the only reason he won the GOP nomination despite his lack of political knowledge and experience, but it definitely played a large role.

According to The New York Times, veteran politicians are worried that Trump’s devil-may-care attitude and behavior during his campaign sets a precedent for future elections. That’s only true if reality TV remains an indelible part of American culture. The only way to keep Trump out of the White House is to vote against him, but the way to prevent another phenomenon like him is to prioritize actual reality over TV.

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