Media coverage is inextricable from Donald Trump’s ascendancy. He was a ratings boon. He provided an endless supply of the trivial micro-controversies that fuel the 24-7 media cycle. Cable news networks rode Trump. CNN was on the Trump train early and often. ESPN’s “First Take” may be at least partially to blame.
Jonathan Mahler wrote a piece about Jeff Zucker and Trump for New York Times magazine. He asserts that Zucker, a sports fan, sought to implement elements of ESPN’s coverage in the news, particularly “First Take.”
As pure TV spectacle, arguments like this were reminiscent of the head-to-head battles pioneered a decade ago by ESPN’s daytime talk shows like “First Take,” which pitted sports pundits against one another in loud disagreements about the topic of the day. This was not a coincidence. Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” he told me. 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.
Zucker looking to ESPN is not surprising. Rachel Nichols was among his first big hires at CNN in 2013. CNN just poached Kaylee Hartung as well. The network’s debate setup looked a heck of a lot like College GameDay. Sean Spicer press conferences have pregame and postgame. Slate compared Jamie Horowitz’s template at FS1 to Zucker’s CNN. That would make sense if both were trying to emulate what Horowitz did at ESPN.
Incorporating the “First Take” ethos into hard news coverage is terrifying.
“First Take” is both admired and reviled. 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.
What drives many media people insane is the nihilism. “First Take” serves no broader mission. It gives the audience a fine-tuned version of what the data says it most wants. “First Take” does not cut out the vegetables. It cuts out the meat and potatoes too. It’s never ending dessert. “First Take” has no moral compass for its programming and takes no responsibility for its impact. Engagement of the audience is an end unto itself.
The “First Take” ethos is benign for sports coverage. ESPN is the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network. Sports is entertainment. It’s a soap opera. What’s scary is when that nihilism gets exported to news coverage that has real life consequences for real people.
Imagine yourself programming a “First Take” for the 2016 Election…
- You would hammer certain issues that moved the meter without concern for balance. Hillary Clinton’s emails! Anything Donald Trump did or said! Benghazi!
- You would ensure arguments. You would do so by having someone on the panel defend the indefensible, even if that meant deploying cranks and sycophants to present both sides.
- You would wash your hands of responsibility for a misinformed public afterward. You were making great television the data proves your audience wanted.
That thought experiment, more or less, is what happened at CNN and other networks. That’s not to say Jake Tapper, Jim Acosta, and others at CNN did not do some excellent journalism – ESPN employs some fine journalists as well – 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.
TV news must balance journalism and entertainment. Jeff Zucker is an entertainment executive. His job is to get people to watch CNN. Just as my job, fundamentally, is to get you to click on this website. But, there needs to be a balance. Engagement being the sole end can cause grave harm, when the matters are weightier than LeBron’s clutchness.