Everyone knows elections are good for the news business. Candidates give journalists stuff to report on to attract readers. They also buy ads.
And it’s obvious that Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump is very good for the news business. (In fact, he topped my own Thanksgiving list of things the political press is thankful for.) He hasn't done much of the ad-buying — he says he doesn’t need to — but that’s only because he’s done so much of the reportable-quotes-giving. His presence in the race has helped television networks raise their ratings and their rates, and compelled rivals to spend big in attempts to catch up.
Why, then, is it so jarring to hear that CBS chief executive Les Moonves said this on a taped call with investors this week, according to the Intercept?
We love having all '16 Republican candidates throwing crap at each other — it’s great. And the more they spend, the better it is for us and: Go, Donald! Keep getting out there! You know, this is fun, watching this. Let them spend money — on us — and we love having them in there. We’re looking forward to a very exciting political year in '16.
Moonves simply stated what is readily apparent to anyone paying attention. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is not that Moonves acknowledged a well-known economic reality. It’s that he appeared to characterize election coverage as just another media product — akin to the Super Bowl, which he mentioned in the same breath — instead of a mission-driven public service that happens to be good for the bottom line, too.
This isn’t the first time Moonves has been blunt about reaping the benefits of campaigning. During the 2012 election cycle, as outside money poured into national races following the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Moonves said at a conference in Los Angeles that “super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.”
Credit Moonves for being transparent, I suppose, and also recall times when he has stressed the non-financial value of journalism, such as the occasion of a media center at USC Annenberg being named in his honor earlier this year.
“As much as technology has changed, and the world and how we are receiving our information is vastly different and will become different, learn the tools of journalism,” Moonves told USC’s student newspaper at the time. “Learn how to tell the story. Learn the who, the what, the where, the when and tell it truthfully, tell it straight ahead, tell it from your point of view, because that never changes.”
But remarks like the one Moonves made this week reinforce people’s worst perceptions about the media — that it's mostly after ratings and money, and not so much about informing the public.
In fact, what he said actually sounded a lot like the way Trump has characterized the media.