By Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
NEW YORK — Just a few months ago, NBC fired Donald Trump. Now it’s giving him a coveted hosting slot on “Saturday Night Live” — to a growing chorus of criticism.
Latino advocacy groups, joined by Hollywood celebrities and others, are calling on NBC to disinvite the Trump from his Nov. 7 appearance, citing inflammatory remarks Trump made about Mexican immigrants in the speech announcing his White House run in June.
“We are appalled that you would enable Trump’s hateful speech for nothing (more) than a ratings ploy,” the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition of 40 civil rights and policy organizations, said in a letter to “SNL” Executive Producer Lorne Michaels and NBCUniversal Chief Executive Stephen Burke.
A social media campaign called #RacismIsntFunny has drawn support from celebrities including John Leguizamo, Margaret Cho and Al Madrigal, and petitions on MoveOn.org and Change.org have gathered 370,000 signatures protesting the Trump appearance.
“There’s no question that this issue has struck a nerve in the Latino community and beyond, and there is growing energy and intensity,” said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy organization.
NBC declined to comment on the matter Monday.
The network initially distanced itself from Trump, who declared his candidacy in June in a speech in which he described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” who were bringing drugs and crime across the border. Within days, NBC fired Trump as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” and ended its involvement with his Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, citing his “recent derogatory statements.”
But as Trump’s insurgent campaign gained momentum over the summer, the real estate tycoon has blossomed into a media sensation with a Midas touch for ratings. “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” got its best Friday night ratings in 18 months with Trump’s Sept. 11 visit. A few weeks later, Trump delivered CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” its biggest audience since its Sept. 8 premiere.
In addition to his “Tonight” visit, Trump has called into “Morning Joe” on cable sister network MSNBC and on Monday sat for a “town hall” moderated by Matt Lauer on “Today.”
As Trump’s profile has risen, NBC’s public rhetoric also appears to have softened. In August, Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt told reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour that Trump would “absolutely not” be back on “The Celebrity Apprentice” but was otherwise full of praise for the billionaire, calling him “a lovely guy” and “very much a collaborator.” Trump’s relationship with the network dates to 2004, when “The Apprentice” premiered.
While these other media appearances have drawn little controversy, Trump’s scheduled visit to “Saturday Night Live” is generating much more flak because it’s seen by his detractors as a cynical ratings ploy that could benefit his political campaign and potentially validate his views on immigration.
“‘SNL’ has become one of the most highly coveted platforms for candidates looking to connect with the American public,” Murguia said. “It’s appalling for a show to showcase a man whose campaign has been built on bigotry and demagoguery for the sake of buzz and ratings.”
Ratings are a reliable factor in booking guest hosts, so it’s likely that a potential “Trump bump” influenced NBC’s decision. As Trump joked the first time he hosted in 2004, “It’s great to be here at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but I’ll be completely honest. It’s even better for ‘Saturday Night Live’ that I’m here. Nobody’s bigger than me, nobody’s better than me, I’m a ratings machine.”
Hosting “SNL” provides the latest example of Trump’s ability to command media attention, which has provided an enormous part of his success since he declared his candidacy in June. Many of his rivals will spend tens of millions of dollars on advertising in the next few months to become better known among voters and spread their campaign message. Trump has been able to accomplish those goals largely for free.
“I thought I’d have $25 million spent by now on ads,” Trump said in a recent interview with Fortune. “Do you know how much I’ve spent? Zero. Because I haven’t had to.”
Other candidates can only bite their lips in frustration. None has publicly condemned NBC’s willingness to have Trump host the popular comedy show, and complaining about it would be unlikely to help them. Republican rival Sen. Marco Rubio brushed off the “SNL” protests, saying, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch the show.”
Candidates usually welcome the chance to appear on shows like “SNL,” in part because doing so enables them to reach the wide audience of potential voters who don’t regularly watch the cable news channels and Sunday morning public affairs programs that carry most political news.
The ability to laugh at oneself also can help make a candidate more attractive to voters. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that when politicians ridicule themselves on “SNL,” it can take the bite out of the parody.
“When you’re starting to be effectively parodied, one way you defuse that is to parody yourself. You can come off as charming, as not taking yourself too seriously, which is clearly a problem with Trump,” she said. “The potential political advantage of it is enormous.”
Another factor in the growing outcry may be that it is exceptionally rare for an active presidential candidate to host the show. Cameos by presidential and vice presidential candidates have long been woven into the fabric of “SNL” — think Sarah Palin in 2008 or Hillary Rodham Clinton this month — and many politicians, including Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have hosted the show.
But the last time a candidate hosted while in the middle of an active campaign was in December 2003, when Democratic long-shot Al Sharpton played the role of emcee. Because of concerns about the Federal Communication Commission’s “equal time” rule, several affiliates declined to carry the original broadcast of the episode.
(Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.)
©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Burlington Memorial Auditorium in Burlington, Iowa, October 21, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan