Trump and His Trumpeting Media

Is the master of the echo chamber about to acquire a whole new channel?

Trump and His Trumpeting Media

Even before his presidential run, Donald Trump has had a special relationship with the media. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Insurgent American nativism is flourishing today in no small part because it is encouraged by a national co-production in which two forces converge, intertwine, scratch each others’ backs and otherwise prove mutually indispensable: (1) Donald Trump and (2) electronic media, on- and offline, beating the drums about marauding Mexicans and those terrorist immigrants welcomed by foreign-born, Muslimish ISIS-founder Barack Hussein Obama.

None of this would have been possible if Trump had to stand on the roof of Trump Tower holding an old-fashioned megaphone and blasting his nastiness unaided all over Fifth Avenue. To become a national agenda-setter for the presidential election, Trump needed mighty amplification. This he received not only from Twitter but from media — cable TV, network TV, tabloids and other papers, and media (Breitbart News, Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and a host of white nationalist affiliates) specializing in white supremacist hatred and idiotic conspiracy theory.

An access- and click-obsessed mainstream media helped too, but fortunately, once Trump was assured of the Republican nomination and his extravagant, vicious bombast was met with a wave of long-overdue skepticism, Trump is — surprise, surprise — blaming the implosion on the very media that enabled him. But is he, at the same time, threatening to join them, thus converting the nightmarish national co-production into a long-running unity: Trump TV?

Rumors fly that Trump has post-November plans for a fully branded network of his own. It may even be that he harbored such a thought all along; that, he always anticipated checking out from his national candidacy (as my co-columnist Neal Gabler wrote in The New York Times) “not only with 18 months of headlines and cheering crowds, but with an even bigger brand.” Now media-savvy collaborators gather under his gilded ceilings. Stephen Bannon, the head of the scurrilous Breitbart “News,” is now running Trump’s campaign not only ideologically but organizationally. Roger Ailes has graduated from harassing women at Fox News to counseling His Hugeness, hoping to repeat for him what he did for Richard Nixon in 1968.

To appreciate what might be forthcoming in Trumpland, it behooves us to review how symbiotic his relations with media have been for more than three decades.

As for bully microphones, Sean Hannity has decided not to content himself with Trump infomercials for his 2.5 million weekly audience but to advise Trump in private and to engage Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens in a Twitter war. (Stephens: Hannity is “Fox News’ dumbest anchor.” Hannity: Stephens is a “dumbass” and an “arrogant, elitist, enabler“; if Hillary Clinton wins, “I will hold a**holes like you accountable.”) As The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg wrote this week, “Mr. Hannity uses his show on the nation’s most-watched cable news network to blare Mr. Trump’s message relentlessly — giving Mr. Trump the kind of promotional television exposure even a billionaire can’t afford for long.”

But to appreciate what might be forthcoming in Trumpland, it behooves us to review how symbiotic his relations with media have been for more than three decades. He inflated himself to headline-making proportions in many ways. He served up to an addicted tabloid press that joyfully passed out needles to avid readers. (Don’t pass up this link: in addition to the confessions of a onetime New York Post “Page Six” editor and gossip columnist, it exhibits a paste-up of a few dozen Post and Daily News front pages featuring Trump and his various amours from over the years.) He practiced years of palsmanship with the smarmy Howard Stern, and used aliases to claim plausible deniability for some of his more incendiary entries into the public eye. He went as far as possible to take up eyeball and eardrum space in America without owning his own network. And now?

What isn’t clear is whether Trump is capable of playing a long media game in the footsteps of Rupert Murdoch. If he does decide to go that route, he could take lessons from Murdoch, though to do so would require partners with a good deal more capital than Trump has at its disposal. Still, the story of Murdoch’s ascendancy to American mogulhood is instructive. Decades ago, the Australian-born-and-bred Murdoch set his sights on American TV, a campaign that required that he become an American citizen. To make a network, he needed to acquire local stations. With the permission of the Federal Communications Commission, he cut corners to win permission to acquire them. The story is told in Ken Auletta’s minutely reported 1995 New Yorker piece, “The Pirate.” Auletta reported that in 1993:

The New York chapter of the NAACP filed a petition charging that Murdoch had misled the FCC in 1985, when he was launching the Fox network. Federal law stipulates that a foreign citizen cannot own more than one-quarter of a broadcast station’s capital stock, and it was then that Murdoch changed his nationality, becoming an American citizen. But a tenacious volunteer lawyer for the NAACP, David Honig, discovered while digging through Fox’s applications for station licenses that although Murdoch himself had 76-percent voting control over Fox, his Australian holding company, the News Corporation, indirectly owned more than 99 percent of the equity of its stations. Thus, the NAACP claimed, Fox had exceeded the foreign-ownership limit, thereby depriving minority Americans of an opportunity to bid for a broadcast license.

The Republicans, just taking over the House, joined in defense of Murdoch, the master cutter of corners. They spoke loudly about abolishing the FCC. Murdoch’s HarperCollins signed incoming Speaker Newt Gingrich to a $4.5 million book deal. (“Gingrich denied knowing that Murdoch was connected to HarperCollins,” Auletta wrote.) Now that a public-interest group had been joined by a major network, Murdoch was incensed:

He felt mistreated by the establishment, and in his deposition to the FCC he said he felt that the agency would be playing a game of “semantics” if it counted News Corporation equity as foreign ownership but did not count Murdoch’s voting control of the stock as American ownership. It was, he said, “a witch hunt.”

Later in 1994, NBC filed a petition like the NAACP’s, insisting that Fox had “blatantly” violated FCC’s foreign ownership rules.

But the FCC caved in. Murdoch was given the opportunity to apply for a “public interest” exemption from the rules. He restructured News Corporation’s equity to fill the loopholes. Lo and behold, he had a network. In essence, the FCC said, Fox was already too big to fail.

The NAACP’s attorney, David Honig, told Auletta:

The process was tainted. I think they threw the Communications Act in the garbage. Murdoch’s Republican cohorts blackmailed the FCC by threatening its existence.

Murdoch knew what he was doing. In January 1994, at a dinner in his Beverly Hills-area mansion in Los Angeles, he laid out his thinking for the incoming FCC chairman Reed Hundt. The future, Murdoch told Hundt, was media abundance and segmentation. As Hundt told me, Murdoch told him how he was going to buy National Football League rights for his network. After all, the NFL had a loyal audience, and it was the same audience that would want to watch whatever cable channels he would launch subsequently. “My demographic,” he told Hundt, “is going to be those people.”

First Fox entertainment, then Fox News. It was because the Fox network thrived so nicely that, in 1996, Murdoch was able to easily get a Roger-Ailes-led Fox News Channel onto the country’s (and then the world’s) cable systems.

That is how empires get built.

Whether Trump can get anywhere following Murdoch’s roadmap is unclear. But the map is in place, gold-plated.

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.