Donald Trump's SNL Appearance Raises Questions About Media Ethics

The chase for ratings and revenue is changing an age-old relationship between candidates and the media.
Photographer: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

In June, NBC cut ties with Donald Trump as immigration advocates led furious protests over his allegations of "rapists" from Mexico. This weekend, the network is presenting him as the host of the storied Saturday Night Live as protests throb at its front door, complete with a petition signed by more than half a million people

The controversy erupted just one week after NBCUniversal took heat from the other side of the political spectrum—the Republican National Committee and Republican candidates, including Trump himself—over moderators' questions at a debate hosted by one of the company's cable affiliates, CNBC. 

The travails of the Comcast-owned company raise larger questions about the relationship between the candidates and the media. Traditionally, it has been adversarial. Now, it's more symbiotic. In an era of fragmented media and increased competition for ad dollars, candidates are not only news sources but revenue sources as well. The campaigns recognize their financial value to the networks, and are trying to leverage that to change the debate formats to their terms.

"It's really dangerous journalistically and ethically," former CNN anchor Aaron Brown said in an interview with Bloomberg. "I worry, as long there's money in a tough economic environment for journalists, that news organizations will take the money and not see the danger." 

Why, for instance, would NBC choose to rekindle its relationship with Trump, giving him one of the biggest platforms in late-night TV,  just months after its parent company fired the real estate mogul from the reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice over his politically incorrect comments? Lauren Roseman, a spokeswoman for "Saturday Night Live,'' declined to comment. But no one summarized the rationale more pithily than the campaign's reality TV veteran. 

"The networks are making a fortune with the debates," Trump said in a recent interview with Bloomberg’s With All Due Respect. He suggested the stars of the show ought to be getting a cut. "We should be like a basketball player,'' Trump said. "We should go on strike and say we want money for Wounded Warriors or a great charity.''

There's data to back up Trump's claims: In August the Republican debate on Fox News drew 24 million viewers, the biggest U.S. audience ever for a cable telecast other than a sports event. In September, CNN reported its broadcast of the Republican debate averaged 22.9 million total viewers—the biggest audience in the network's history.

Those big audiences have drawn big ad dollars. Advertisers have spent $14 million on air time during the first four presidential debates, according to research firm Kantar Media. By comparison, they spent less than $500,000 for the first four debates in 2011.

CNBC charged as much as $250,000 for 30-second ads during last week's debate, while CNN asked as much as $180,000 for similar commercial time during its debate in September, according to a media buyer. Last month, Fox Business Network was asking $170,000 for 30-second spots during the Republican debate that it will host Tuesday, the buyer said. Normal rates for a 30-second ads on Saturday Night Live go for about $180,000, but the buyer said they may be higher with Trump hosting.

Underscoring the value of the Trump SNL appearance: The network is allowing it to go ahead even though it could raise legal challenges. Meredith McGehee, a policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a political watchdog group, said that because local broadcast TV affiliates are required by law to give each can­did­ate equal opportunity for air time, NBC's Iowa affiliates might be forced to give up air time of equal value to Trump's SNL appearance to another candidate, she said.

Meanwhile, like Hollywood stars negotiating with a studio, the presidential candidates and their advocates continue to mull a joint set of demands to present to networks that want to host future debates.

Ben Ginsberg on Drafting Revised GOP Debate Letter

Whether or not a joint letter materializes, pressure is already building on the media. Trump has said he plans to negotiate terms of his debate appearances unilaterally with networks. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus already has suspended plans to have NBC host a February debate of his party's presidential candidates, a punitive move that would have been unthinkable in an earlier campaign. 

"The power dynamic has changed completely in the last generation'' between the media and the presidential campaigns, said Mark Feldstein, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. "There used to be three major networks and they had the power and they dictated to the candidates."

"Now you have a very fractionalized TV media environment with cable networks in particular desperate for ratings," he added. Noting that the dollars from ads sold around the debates "represents real revenue, especially to cable," Feldstein said: "Suddenly, the power has shifted from the networks to the candidates like Trump."

There has been pushback. Fox News host Megyn Kelly mocked the proposed initial list of candidate demands —including guaranteed 30-second opening and closing statements and approval over on-screen graphics—reading them on the air and joking "then maybe, like, a foot massage. Really?" 

But the interest in booking political celebrities remains high. Hillary Clinton also has made an SNL appearance and there has been a parade of candidates on the increasingly competitive late-night talk circuit.

Airing political programming has long been considered a part of TV's public service mission. But in the current environment, the TV networks "are not doing the candidates a favor,'' said Ken Goldstein, a politics professor at University of San Francisco who consults for Bloomberg Politics. "The candidates are doing them a favor.''

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