The topic of the combative nature of the media is pervasive these days, but some now say that CNN chief Jeff Zucker actually planned to base his network’s political coverage on the fractious debate over sports as seen on ESPN, and that this combative coverage set the table for Donald Trump to win the White House.
In a recent New York Times Magazine article, writer Jonathan Mahler reports that Zucker used ESPN’s “First Take” sports debate show as a template for political coverage on his own network.
Mahler notes that Zucker, who is a big sports fan, was very impressed by “First Take” because it pits sports pundits against one another in a combative back and forth over the sports news of the day.
“The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” Zucker reportedly told Mahler. This thought led Zucker to ramp up political coverage with confrontation and spectacle as a base line:
Toward that end, the network built “pregame” sets outside debate halls with excited crowds in the background and created a temporary rooftop studio for the final weeks of the campaign with sweeping views of the White House and the Washington Monument. An on-screen countdown clock ticked down the days (then hours) to Nov. 8. Trump, the trash-talking (and trash-Tweeting) underdog who inspired raw, powerful feelings among supporters and detractors alike, was the ideal subject for this narrative framework.
So, according to Mahler, the current mien of the media may have grown out of ESPN’s combative sports coverage.
This possibility troubles Ty Duffy of TheBigLead.com, who calls it all “terrifying.”
“‘First Take’ is both admired and reviled,” Duffy wrote. “The formula is simple. People watch conflict and arguments. People watch coverage of certain hot-button issues. ESPN has precise data on which topics hit. ‘First Take’ offers relentless conflict and arguments about those topics, however, concocted. It’s successful, almost too successful.”
Duffy goes on to note that many feel “First Take” is an empty exercise that not only “cuts out the vegetables” of the issues, but it also “cuts out the meat and potatoes too. It’s never ending dessert.”
ESPN’s sports show “has no moral compass for its programming and takes no responsibility for its impact. Engagement of the audience is an end unto itself,” Duffy insists.
But, with Zucker adapting this “morals free” style of TV to political coverage, Duffy is afraid that this set the stage for Donald Trump to emerge from among a crowded Republican field and win the White House.
“That thought experiment, more or less, is what happened at CNN and other networks,” Duffy wrote, “…but the pure entertainment impulse runs in direct contrast to that journalistic mission, to inform the public. Employing the ‘First Take’ method tolerates misinformation and distortion for entertainment’s sake.”
Duffy concludes by chastising Zucker as an “entertainment executive” who has eliminated “balance” in political coverage. “Engagement being the sole end can cause grave harm, when the matters are weightier than LeBron’s clutchness,” Duffy insisted.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter @warnerthuston or email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.