Trump’s remarks about ratings offer a damning portrayal of the American press

In revealing audio shared on “Deadline: White House” on Tuesday, Donald Trump is heard telling a journalist about show business and its obsession with ratings.

Talking with Variety editor Ramin Setoodeh last year, the former president said:

It’s all about one thing: ratings. If you have ratings, you can be the meanest, most horrible human being in the world. There’s only one thing that matters: ratings. You can be nice or you can be mean. You can be evil. You can be horrible. You can be crude or elegant. There’s only one thing that matters, and that’s ratings. If you don’t have ratings, it doesn’t matter.

This wasn’t some stroke of brilliance from Trump. It’s more like “crime pays” or “sex sells” — a truism about the attraction, among some, to things deemed socially objectionable.

In this case, Trump’s musings speak to the reality that he’s good for clicks. News platforms performed quite well during his term — perhaps because people felt a need to stay abreast of all the trauma induced by his illiberal reign, or simply whatever idiotic thing he said on any given day. It’s no surprise that Trump — a known huckster who loves being on camera — would understand this.

News platforms performed quite well during his term — perhaps because people felt a need to stay abreast of all the trauma induced by his illiberal reign, or simply whatever idiotic thing he said on any given day.

But his remarks seem particularly scathing in the current context, as we’re seeing many in the American pundit class clamoring for President Joe Biden to drop his re-election bid (with the subtext being that not doing so could fatally damage Democrats’ presidential hopes) after his debate performance.

It’s remarkable, really: At last week’s debate, Trump spewed lies and bigoted bile for 90 minutes while rarely answering the questions. Some might say those are signs of aging and mental decline; others might say they’re simply disqualifying. Nonetheless, the headlines can make it seem like Biden is the only one whose fitness for office deserves scrutiny.

Even after the conservative-dominated Supreme Court effectively authorized parts of Trump’s bigoted efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election — and potentially paved the way for him to assassinate political rivals — pieces on Biden’s future have been driving at least one prominent editorial section.

Depending where you get your news, it can feel like these calls for Biden to drop out have been more vigorous than the ones for Trump to not be a candidate in this race — the same candidate who played a central role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, who was found liable for sexual abuse, and who was convicted of 34 felony counts related to the 2016 election.

Indeed, a more diverse pundit class — both in terms of race and gender — would be mighty useful right about now.

But in the meantime, this obsession with the Biden-Harris campaign can understandably feel like a betrayal. Some people may have hoped that American media outlets would resoundingly be calling for Trump not to run — even if for moral reasons, rather than political ones.

And while those calls have happened — my colleagues at MSNBC have written extensively about Trump’s lies and shortcomings, for example — they currently are being drowned out. And that’s a problem.

(P.S. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the German media during the Weimar Republic, the period from 1919 to 1933 that predated Hitler’s rise. Mainly because I’ve wanted to know if there are similarities with the modern American press amid a rising threat of fascism.

Here’s a great Columbia Journalism Review piece from 2016 — on the media’s “Weimar moment” — that speaks to the idea.

And if you’re interested in learning more about how bad actors have historically used the American media to oppress marginalized groups, I recommend “News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.”)

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