Donald Trump cartoon by Michele Paccione via Shutterstock.
I thought we were gonna get television. The truth is, television is gonna get us.
Over the weekend, I watched the 1994 film “Quiz Show” again. Like a lot of movies, books, short stories, TV shows, documentaries and news stories I’ve revisited in the past year or so, it unexpectedly spoke to the ugly realities of this point in time.
The movie is based on “Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties,” a book by Richard Godwin, who became curious about rumors of scandals and rigged television quiz shows during the 1950s. As a congressional lawyer, he was able to do something about it. Working as special counsel to the Legislative Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, he was part of an investigation that included “Twenty One,” the quiz show featured in the movie.
The investigation proves the show was rigged, but Godwin (played by Rob Morrow) is disillusioned by the outcome, in which the network (NBC) emerges largely unscathed. There are many reasons for this. The often-blurred line between reality and fiction in entertainment is one of them.
Nothing speaks to that more loudly and with more serious implications than the rise of Donald Trump from lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous ’80s television curiosity to his role on “The Apprentice” to his improbable 2016 election as president of the United States. “The Apprentice” (on NBC, it’s worth noting) furthered the creation of a Donald Trump character made to stand for the real Trump but one that obscured the real Trump, the truth about his business practices and his many character flaws. There is superb reporting dating to the ’70s and ’80s that reveals the reality of the man, but to viewers whose primary exposure to Trump was on television, the myth became real. Many voted for the myth and elected the man. And here we are.
To anyone paying attention the past 28 months, since Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency, television’s role in his election is clear. It helped enable his branding in the ’80s by focusing more on style than substance. It glossed over his many business failures in later years by continuing a tabloid-like flavor to its coverage of Trump. Cable news became his greatest ally early in his campaign and could never cure itself of what amounts to journalistic malpractice. And as much as he tried to explain it away as a joke, CBS CEO Leslie Moonves showed his hand with his comments in February 2016.
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Watching “Quiz Show” again, my mind instantly recalled television’s fingerprints on Trump’s presidency when the Godwin character summed up the unexpected turn at the conclusion of what had seemed like a successful investigation into scandal. I heard it differently than I had the other times I’d seen the movie.
I thought we were gonna get television. The truth is, television is gonna get us.”