Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.
Can we even count all the ways that NBC’s ongoing business relationship with President-elect Donald Trump, in the form of his executive producer title for The Apprentice, obliterates virtually every common sense standard that exists for avoiding conflicts of interest and creates an impossible situation for the network’s reporters?
The parent company for NBC News, one of the largest news organizations in America, is going to maintain its business relationship with the president of the United States; the same Donald Trump whom NBC announced last year didn’t reflect the company’s “core values,” which was why NBC publicly terminated its business relationship with him.
But now after winning the White House, it turns out Trump is going to stay on as executive producer for the latest incarnation of The Apprentice reality show, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. And all of this we’re learning just days after Trump made a big public show about how he was going to remove himself from his business conflicts.
We’re obviously through the looking glass with this Trump-NBC deal. Yet lots of Beltway pundits, the type who obsessed over the appearance of conflicts for Hillary Clinton during the campaign, now shrug their shoulders and suggest Trump maintaining a lucrative business association with a news and entertainment giant is no big deal.
Unfortunately, NBC News is no stranger to ethical entanglements when it comes to Trump and the larger NBC family. In October, NBC News was caught flat footed on one of the biggest scoops of the election season when The Washington Post revealed live-microphone comments Trump had made during an Access Hollywood taping about grabbing women by the “pussy,” because when you’re a “star” you “can do anything.”
Access Hollywood airs on NBC and executives at NBC News were told about the tape days before the Post scoop.
As CNN reported:
Thanks to a series of decisions that can be described as at least curious, NBC News missed out on gaining credit for the scoop of the campaign, an October surprise to put all others that have come before it to shame.
And it has left NBC News answering questions about its hyper-cautious reaction to the tape, and pondering if it can rehabilitate the image of its recent high-profile anchor hire, Billy Bush.
Once the disturbing tape recordings were found, NBC reportedly sat on the blockbuster story figuring out how to proceed. (By contrast, the Post published its story just hours after learning about the tapes.) But today, with Trump having an ongoing financial relationship with NBC, we’re supposed to believe there won’t be anymore potential entanglements? That’s really not believable.
Meanwhile, recognize that over the years, NBC News treated Trump very kindly while his show was a tent pole on NBC’s entertainment lineup.
Earlier this year during the Republican primary season, when the conservative Media Research Center was upset with how much television airtime Trump was getting compared to the other GOP candidates, the group examined NBC News’ often-cozy relationship with Trump between 2004-2015, while he was a regular presence on NBC’s primetime lineup:
NBC has spent more than a decade building his brand as a successful businessman of almost mythic proportion. The network’s coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly and consistently positive. MRC Business found only 15 stories (out of 335) on Trump’s business failures, and 320 stories promoting him as a businessman, his businesses, and his shows. The vast majority of stories were about the network’s show The Apprentice, which featured Trump … NBC News’s Today served as a de facto PR machine for The Apprentice and its star.
It’s impossible to suggest those conflicts for NBC will soon evaporate when Trump’s sworn into office. In fact, they’ll only multiply.
For instance, The Apprentice has been leaking viewers for years. If the show continues to lag next year, who at NBC is going to be responsible for telling President Trump that his television show has been canceled and his weekly five-figure checks are going to dry up? What if the enraged executive producer (i.e. the president of the United States) then goes on a Twitter tirade and urges his millions of followers to stop watching NBC programs, or he starts an advertising boycott against the network?
Conversely, what if the new Apprentice turns into a ratings behemoth? Will NBC News think twice about airing a blockbuster scandal report about Trump corruption, for instance, knowing it could damage a key NBC primetime asset?
And remember how Trump picked that weird public fight with U.S. manufacturing giant Boeing last week? What if the next target of Trump’s free market wrath decides it needs to mend fences with the White House and buys millions of dollars worth of product placement on The Apprentice; a cut of which could end up in Trump’s pocket?
This is just nuts. Trump’s looming business conflicts are out of control. The fact that a media company with a huge news division is part of the problem just makes it all the more distressing.
Meanwhile, a key point is that this is just the latest in the media’s rampant normalization of Trump’s wildly abnormal behavior. Every modern-day president before Trump, and every modern-day nominee before him, pledged to make sure not only wouldn’t there be any conflicts of interest surrounding their presidencies, but there wouldn’t even any appearances of conflicts; of cashing in on the Oval Office. (Cue Richard Nixon: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.”)
Now Trump does the opposite by openly flaunting obvious conflicts and the D.C. press largely shrugs its shoulders. (Exceptions were appreciated.) Does the controversy surrounding Trump’s Apprentice payday constitute the pressing issue facing the president-elect’s transition? It does not. (Not when he’s tapping a climate denier to run the EPA, among other alarming moves.) But it highlights the disturbing pattern of the press routinely explaining away Trump’s unparalleled behavior.
I mean c’mon. When President Obama published a children’s book in 2010 as president, he donated all the earnings to charity. It would have been political suicide for him to even think about pocketing the profits. And it also would’ve been the unethical thing do.
But Trump thumbs his nose at all of that and lots of journalists just shrug while NBC stays mum? This is just the press needlessly normalizing radical Republican behavior.