Michael Wolff on Donald Trump's Shrewd Two-Timing of Fox News and CNN

Trump puppet master Illo - H 2015
Peter Arkle

Trump puppet master Illo - H 2015

On the eve of the debate, the frontrunner is Rupert Murdoch's worst nightmare: A GOP ratings machine who "speaks to the center" and is just as much CNN's politician as Fox's.

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The dominant force in Republican party politics for most of the last generation has been Fox News. Every national GOP candidate has had to pay it court and heed. Through Fox, many found their voice and, as a consolation prize when they lost or as a waystation between races, a paycheck.

The summer of Donald Trump will be an extraordinarily profitable one for Fox News. The longer the Trump surge, the more the network can be expected to make via increased ratings. Any liberal hope that the ascendance of Rupert Murdoch’s sons (and Fox News chief Roger Ailes antagonists) James and Lachlan to leadership of the parent company might mean Ailes’ end is further complicated by the profits Trump adds to Fox News, already the parent company’s most profitable division.

Still, even with such additional riches at Fox, the network suddenly finds itself in a deeply unsettled world. Trump is not one more product or reflection of the Fox News media philosophy and of its hold on the Republican party. Rather, Trump is the first Republican in the Fox age, who — in a weird sort of justice that liberal Fox haters might come to rue — threatens to break the network’s hold on the Republican party and the discipline it has imposed on it. At best, Trump negotiates with Fox on an equal footing. Arguably, he dominates it, demanding it dance to his tune.

The essence of Fox News has always been that it programmed to an unserved audience — a nonliberal, less urban, whiter bailiwick — and promoted more targeted political figures to serve it, hence creating the modern, culturally inbred, Tea Party-influenced Republican Party. It has been something of a closed programming loop — Republican politics created by the only network on which you could experience Republican politics. No Republicans without Republican TV.

In Trump, however, Republicanism goes from the parochial to the polymorphous. The New York reality TV star and gambling, golf and real estate mogul’s appeal is not only to the Fox heartland, but, necessarily — reflected in August’s Fox News debate audience that soared beyond a reasonable 3 million to a hyperbolic 24 million — to a much more diverse group of cable viewers.

Disorientingly, Trump is as much the candidate of CNN as he is of Fox, as much a friend of CNN chief Jeff Zucker as he is of Fox’s Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, as much a golden goose for Zucker as for Ailes. Indeed, Zucker’s star rises at CNN and within its parent Time Warner along with Trump’s. It is, of course, Zucker who, while running NBC, commissioned The Apprentice and its offshoots, transforming Trump from a local New York personality to national phenomenon. (Piers Morgan, the former CNN host who regularly had Trump as one of his highest-rated guests, was a winner of Celebrity Apprentice.)

Most people now in the cable news business are too young to remember when a single American political candidate could generate ratings across all news networks. Indeed, in a divided cable world, Republican candidates hardly ever even appear on non-Republican TV, with CNN long suspecting that conservative candidates need dispensation from Fox News to appear anywhere else.

But ordinary rules don’t apply to Donald Trump. Politics, in a sense, doesn’t apply. Rather, it’s just television, with The Donald, cable-style, just endlessly talking. Trump’s now-famous “blood” insult about Fox’s Megyn Kelly was delivered via an on-air phone call to CNN’s Don Lemon, part of a seemingly constant stream of phone-ins and appearances that continues unabated.

Trump is less like a traditional Republican candidate than he is like the missing Malaysian Airlines plane. He’s the kind of news event that CNN has, in the Zucker era, become best at covering — the news event that can fill the vacuum of endless cable time, with no details too small, no rehash too repetitive. Such stories require no secret political and culture language. Rather, you just keep the camera trained on what’s in front of you. Trump provides his own narrative and talking points.

In this, Trump, beyond politics, offers new hope for the news business.

The news business has recently had much going against it, not least of all a progression of more and more narrowcast presidential candidates, speaking to a more and more limited slice of the cable news audience. The Republicans are still fighting cultural battles long resolved by much of the nation; the Democrats offer only a bland, conflict-averse Hillary Clinton.

Trump isn’t just trying to appeal to his core supporters: He wants everybody to watch him (whether they agree with him is quite immaterial) — the spectacle is his post-policy strategy. The mad-as-hell, hot-button, obsessive cable audience previously divided by networks, politics and programming styles has coalesced around Trump as the ultimate pan-cable candidate. (MSNBC, still the voice of the Obama era, alas, does not seem to be benefiting.)

Indeed, today's Republican debate, breaking the political programming paradigm, may well be bigger for CNN than it was for Fox News. 

This new dynamic has confounded no one so much as Rupert Murdoch himself, relegated to tweeting nasty jabs at Trump. It is some ultimate irony that Fox has helped produce a politician that not only doesn’t need Fox, but one that is Murdoch’s worst nightmare, a conservative political figure who is anything but a creature of traditional politics and traditional kingmakers

If political passion has become marginalized on the edges of both parties, compressing the true political audience into, arguably, no more than a few million people, Trump, curiously, speaks to a new center, a vast audience of riveted observers, compelled not by shared political symbols and messaging, but by the sheer excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen. 

Will he self-destruct? And how? And who will he take with him? Or, even more astounding, will he go the distance and blow up everybody in his way? That’s news. That’s a story. That’s television.

Michael Wolff is the author of several books about the media business, incuding his most recent, 'Television Is the New Television.'