The last time there was a notable documentary about one of the 2016 presidential front-runners (“Hillary the Movie,” produced by Citizens United), it led to a Supreme Court decision that uncorked a champagne bottle of outside money — the spray of which has soaked American politics. So I can’t say these things don’t matter.
But the odds are pretty high that MSNBC’s “Citizen Trump,” which airs Tuesday night at 7 p.m. Eastern time, won’t forever alter the course of campaign finance or even the current election. Everybody, relax.
Alarmist predictions for the hour-long documentary — “a look back at Donald Trump’s career and path to politics,” according to the network — range from a boost for Trump to a shot at Trump to a pure ratings grab by MSNBC.
— harry fowler (@americamatters2) December 20, 2015
@MSNBC Do you have no shame? Giving more time to Trump in a documentary? We need more thoughtful commentary, not pandering for ratings.
— Marvin The Martian (@MartyTruthHurts) December 20, 2015
MSNBC PLANS TO AIR DOCUMENTARY TO TRY TO TAKE OUT TRUMP
— Maria Mitchell (@CatsofVelvet) December 21, 2015
— Rhonda Kazmierski (@KazmierskiR) December 21, 2015
RATINGS GOLD MSNBC to Air Documentary on "The Rise of Donald Trump" https://t.co/4q6c1ebgVj
— barbara barna abel (@BarbaraBarna) December 20, 2015
Paradoxically, these could all be true, since attacks on Trump seem to only make him stronger, and he does have a knack for attracting eyeballs. But when assumptions about a network’s agenda are so all over the map, maybe we’re looking too hard for a hidden motive. Maybe MSNBC simply made a documentary about Trump because he is the most compelling/polarizing candidate in the race and people might want to know more about him.
Keep in mind that MSNBC produced documentaries about President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. This isn’t a new thing done just for Trump. The networks says it will also make documentaries about other 2016 candidates; Trump’s is merely the first in a series.
Remember, too, that while the documentary format is popular in politics, it’s usually not journalistic. It’s often employed by candidates or political action committees trying influence voters. Republican White House hopeful Ben Carson paid to air a documentary in select markets last year.
A super PAC backing one of Carson’s fellow GOP candidates, Carly Fiorina, did the same this fall.
And “Hillary the Movie,” in case you’ve forgotten, was an anti-Clinton documentary produced by Citizens United during her first run for president, in 2008. She’s now the favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
Clinton was supposed to be the subject of a CNN documentary and an NBC mini-series, but both were canceled in 2013 amid complaints from Republicans and Democrats alike. One side thought the projects would be too flattering; the other feared they would be too critical.
Now, MSNBC is attempting to revive the journalistic candidate documentary. Despite the inevitable griping from conservatives and liberals, that’s a good thing. “Citizen Trump” and the docs that follow probably won’t be watershed moments, but they will likely provide more insight than standard, two-minute TV news packages.
If the trouble with cable news is too many sound bytes and too little context, this is at least an attempt to counteract the problem. Let’s give it a chance and at least wait to judge it after it airs.