Journalism has been ‘Jerry Springerized’
Donald Trump is gone, but the damage done to news media lingers on: Thanks to the former president, journalism has been “Jerry Springerized” — addicted to conflict and madness in the search for audience.
Proof of the compulsion: the way figures like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — even after the Capitol riot and impeachment — are still given nearly unlimited media attention.
Every Hollywood screenwriter knows conflict is the essence of good drama. But that conflict serves a purpose: in the end, a life is saved, justice served, a family repaired.
Jerry Springer’s show and others like his are different: Inside the television business, these programs are called “conflict talk.” They feature two sides screaming at each other for an hour, minus commercials. Unlike drama, the conflict here is the whole point. There’s no other purpose. It’s like a crowd outside a bar watching two drunks fight: everyone cheers, no one knows why, and no one cares — they just enjoy the battle.
Trump was raised on this ethos in the rough-and-tumble world of New York tabloid news. He learned early on that saying something outrageous and aggressive was the fastest way to make headlines — which was all he really wanted.
When he brought this mentality to politics, Trump quickly attracted some followers who were like that crowd outside the bar. It’s uncertain whether they were really invested in any issues; it always seemed his base simply flocked to Trump for the fight.
Media was right there with them.
Long before he was a top 2016 contender, news outlets covered Trump’s combative candidacy non-stop for the entertainment value, turning anchors and reporters into Jerry Springers with better graphics.
As the Trump years wore on, some media issued apologies for enabling his rise; they made promises to do better.
But habits are hard to break.
In just the past week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) denied the Capitol siege was an armed insurrection, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) speculated that if Trump were impeached Hillary Clinton could be too, and Sen. Graham predicted Vice President Kamala Harris could soon face an impeachment of her own.
All of these statements — ridiculous or easily disproven — were covered extensively, signaling that the media, along with ambitious Republicans, remain slaves to the Trump playbook. The remarks weren’t about policy or political philosophy from what was once called “the loyal opposition.” Each senator’s comment was, instead, the Washington equivalent of a Jerry Springer moment: conflict for the sake of conflict, a means to a Trump-like end — publicity.
It worked, because as much as these politicians need air-time, the post-Trump news media needs to hold on to ratings and readers.
Sen. Graham’s comments are a key example. Speaking on Fox News Sunday about people arrested during the George Floyd protests, Graham said, “I don’t know how Kamala Harris doesn’t get impeached if Republicans take over the House, because she actually bailed out rioters, and one of the rioters went back on the streets and broke somebody’s head.”
That statement was outrageous enough to break out of the right-wing media bubble and get picked up all over the mainstream press — exactly the senator’s intention.
But it would have been easy to actually investigate his accusation before running with it. After all, Trump’s defense attorneys had alleged something similar during the impeachment proceedings. Did Harris really do what she’s accused of? The Independent newspaper, for one, discovered she didn’t — and reported what really happened in detail.
Relatively few other news organizations bothered; many just noted that Harris denied the allegation or that Graham provided no evidence.
Most media defaulted to Springer mode, enjoying the conflict and reaping the rewards. Graham, along with Johnson and Rubio, got what they needed, too: the kind of notoriety — complete with predictable shock and fury from the left — that paints them as rightful MAGA heirs.
Like Donald Trump’s presidency, “The Jerry Springer Show” is no longer in production (Though Springer immediately launched a new — somewhat less combative — show called “Judge Jerry”). His legend lives on in re-runs, still pulling in a decent audience. Jerry’s genre isn’t exactly my favorite, yet for many people he provides escape and entertainment. And that’s okay.
But entertainment — especially the mindless conflict-focused entertainment of cynical provocateurs — shouldn’t be a driving force in news, despite the desperate need to fill a void left by the Trump Show’s cancellation.
Journalists know that.
But no one’s changing the Springer channel yet.
NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to make it clear Sen. Rubio was speculating about Hillary Clinton being impeached.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.