January 23, 2018

Emperor Trump: Let Them Watch ‘Celebrity Apprentice’

President-elect Donald Trump will continue to be an Executive Producer of the NBC prime-time reality program “The Celebrity Apprentice,” which is returning January 2 after being off the air for two years and will feature a new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

When I read this announcement, I was reminded of Emperor Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III, who once proclaimed, “One of the first duties of a sovereign is to amuse his subjects of all ranks in the social scale.”  According to Ross King, author of the superb book The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave The World Impressionism:

If [Louis-Napoleon’s] subjects could be entertained, he reasoned, then perhaps they would fail to notice or to care about the fact that most of their liberties had vanished. This was the man, after all, who had suppressed an insurrection in Algeria in 1856 by sending the magician Robert Houdin to Algiers to to bamboozle the locals with this repertoire of amazing tricks, including his famous “bullet catch” routine. And what worked on unruly Algerians would likewise, Louis-Napoleon hoped, work for the unruly French.

While President-elect Trump hasn’t yet suppressed journalists and forbidden the press to publish negative comments or images of him as Louis-Napoleon did, I have no doubt that he would like to divert the public’s attention away from such issues as the environment, conflicts of interests and picks of unqualified cabinet officers, and to keep his celebrity, reality star status and image with his core fans and followers. Also, as John Cassidy pointed out in his penetrating New Yorker article, Trump wants to have his cake and eat it too — govern the country and be involved in his businesses. Trump has said that he will have no involvement in making decisions on Celebrity Apprentice and that the Executive Producer title merely represents his development of the show and his financial interest in it.

From Trump’s perspective, there’s no conflict of interest. He’ll get richer and his fans will love him.

In terms of today’s TV network business and ethical values, NBC apparently sees nothing wrong with the president of the United States being listed as an executive producer in one of their entertainment programs. However, I think NBC should be concerned.

Remember CBS’s CEO Les Moonves’s comment about Donald Trump’s campaign? “It might not be good for American, but it’s damn good for CBS.” That was also the attitude of CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — get the ratings from covering Trump regardless of whether it’s good for the country. Profits before public service.

Julian Goodman was President of NBC from 1966-1974, and had come out of the news division. It was under Goodman’s leadership that NBC developed the highly rated Huntley-Brinkley Report that featured John Chancellor, who in 1970 became the sole anchor of the renamed NBC Nightly News, followed by Tom Brokaw. Goodman, Huntley, Brinkley, Chancellor and Brokaw were old-fashioned broadcast newspeople who, like their competitors at CBS News, Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite, felt that broadcast news was a public service, a public trust.

It wasn’t until 1986 when GE bought NBC and Larry Tisch took over as CEO of CBS (after buying 24.9% of CBS’ stock) that the two networks’ news divisions had to make a profit. The notion of news programs making a profit had been anathema to William S. Paley and Robert Sarnoff, the founders of CBS and NBC, who both viewed their news divisions as crown jewels of public service that helped them keep their valuable radio and TV station licenses that were issued by the FCC to “serve the public interest, convenience and necessity.”

I don’t believe that if Julian Goodman, or David Brinkley, or Chet Huntley, or John Chancellor, or Tom Brokaw or their intellectual and public-service/public-trust oriented successors were still running NBC that they would have agreed to carry a program for which one of the executive producers was the president of the United States. Therefore, I don’t blame Donald Trump for taking the executive producer money; I fault NBC for giving it to him.

NBC is helping Trump entertain the public and divert their attention from important issues.

On the other hand, NBC carries Saturday Night Live and Alex Baldwin’s devastatingly satirical impression of our future president, so maybe the scale is somewhat balanced.