American news channels are adopting the characteristics of reality TV shows, with speculation and emotion replacing fact, according to Robert Byrd, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Memphis. In a seminar, Enemy of the People? Trump, Fake News and the Press, held last month at the Mainz headquarters of ZDF, a German public-service television broadcaster, Byrd warned German journalists against following the US media’s example.
“Don’t follow in our footsteps. Trust me, you don’t want to go there.”
Byrd argued that some American media outlets operate on a seemingly continuous loop, endlessly speculating about questions of power and political strategies.
American TV channels increasingly focus on shows hosted by pundits to fill their 24-hour schedules, Byrd said. Pundits are often lobbyists who try to further their agendas or simply speculate.
He singled out Fox News for his criticism, citing the channel’s reaction to Trump’s decision to drop the so-called ‘Mother of All Bombs’ on an Isis tunnel in Afghanistan in April. Instead of journalistic evaluation of the events, there were comments from TV hosts such as “…one of my favourite things is watching bombs drop on bad guys…”, Byrd recalled.
He acknowledged that emotions, rumour and gossip are popular with viewers. Fox News viewing figures have risen 28% over the previous year, to 2.4 million at prime time, and MSNBC evening figures have increased by 87% to 1.6 million viewers. Byrd thinks this is because Trump understands the news cycle, as a former reality TV star.
In his show, The Apprentice, Trump “learned how to cultivate an audience, by creating a personality they fell in love with,” Byrd said. “He established a brand: viewers saw him as a successful businessman who also entertained them with his catchphrase, ‘You’re fired!’ This set a pattern for his political career: as Trump labelled critical news coverage as fake, allegations of ‘Fake news!’ replaced ‘You’re fired!’ as his mantra.
Byrd argued that Donald Trump has taken advantage of a recent decline in trust in American media (down to 33% according to the 2016 Digital News Report) by publicly undermining the press.
Trump has alleged that the “fake news media” is the “enemy of the American people”, but Byrd said the media can be their own enemy. Trump dictates to them what they talk about; he controls the narrative. “Even if somethings seems to go against him, he will tweet something ridiculous and the media will talk about it.” This ensures that people are looking at his social media instead of what he is actually doing.
Byrd urged journalists to unfollow Trump on Twitter, or block him, as the only way to ensure they don’t get distracted from important issues. He praised The Washington Post and The New York Times for doing their best job since Watergate, but says the rest of the media has to follow their example and concentrate on facts. “When I turn on a news network, I want to see news,” he said.
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