SCREEN BURN

How the Media Got Trumped in 2015

The media year of 2015 has one loud, controversy-addicted politician at its heart, but also included reporting controversies, and some tragic deaths.

12.31.15 5:01 AM ET

It has been a year of surprises, hardly any of them welcome in the media world.

Well, maybe some of them.

While a reality television star’s apparently triumphal march to the White House is giving a good many citizens the willies, who can resist the riveting narratives supplied by the downfall of Brian Williams?

The thwarted attempts to humble Fox News’s resident megalomaniac, Bill O’Reilly? The ongoing tragicomedy of the ladies of The View? And the comeuppance of Gawker Media?

Herewith, a celebration of the best, if occasionally alarming, media stories of the past 12 months.

DONALD TRUMP, KING OF ALL MEDIA: The erstwhile reality television star, who played a billionaire real estate mogul on NBC’s long-running hit The Apprentice, has exploded any number of widely held assumptions in the political-media complex. 

Among them was the certainty that Trump’s frontrunner status in the Republican presidential field was by definition illusory and temporary; that his often-offensive pronouncements against Mexicans, Megyn Kelly, POWs, and Muslims—to name just four of his targets—would quickly disqualify him in the minds of voters; and that his refusal to hire a media strategist and purchase advertising time in Iowa and New Hampshire would doom his ability to control his campaign message.

Much to the consternation of the GOP establishment—indeed, the American powers that be as a whole—Trump has disrupted long-established truths of presidential campaigning, displaying a previously unknown virtuosity in manipulating the country’s broadcast and cable news networks into covering him wall to wall and thus depriving his rivals of much-needed attention in the mainstream media.

The Donald is no doubt justified in taking a measure of credit for the unheard-of, record-breaking viewership of the presidential primary debates. All this, while betraying an ignorance of domestic and international policy details that successful White House aspirants generally try to master.

Perhaps Trump’s success in the political big-time shouldn’t have been a shock, given his undeniable talent at building the Trump brand through near-constant engagement with the Fourth Estate—and the conflict-loving superficiality of much of the news media’s political reporting.

THE DEMOCRATS’ TOP LADY VS. NEW YORK’S GRAY LADY: Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz considers The New York Times Hillary Clinton’s media lapdog, but that’s hardly the view of the Democratic frontrunner’s loyalists and campaign operatives.

They have suspected the newspaper of record of anti-Hillary bias ever since the Times spearheaded Whitewater scandal reporting in 1992, following up with Times columnist William Safire calling the then-first lady “a congenital liar,” and persisting to the present day, with the Times questioning the fundraising and favor-granting practices of the Clintons and their charitable foundation, and breaking the private email story in the run-up to the 2016 election.

James Carville insists that the paper’s chronic unfairness is obvious: “Does anybody claim anything to the contrary?…It’s like people claiming there’s no climate change. You can find somebody, but it would be very hard to find somebody who doesn’t work there.”

Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet pushes back: “What I would say to my fellow Louisianan, James Carville, is that, being a pundit, he likes to opine about things when he doesn’t know anything about them. It’s not true. It’s ridiculous. Politicians are always looking for some subterranean reason why people want to go after their candidate.”

THE LIFE (AND NEAR-DEATH) OF BRIAN: In a network news division chronically beset by turmoil and bad PR, the toppling of longtime NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was a new low. Williams’s self-inflicted wound—telling tall tales about his exploits in journalism, not only on NBC but also during numerous late-night talk show appearances and other public settings over the years—earned him a six-month suspension without pay in February.

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The hammer came down mere weeks after Williams signed a reported $50 million, five-year contract to continue anchoring NBC’s marquee news program after a decade of ratings success; nearly everyone predicted that he could never be rehabilitated.

Enter Williams’s close friend and mentor Andy Lack, the former NBC News president who came back—after a 15-year-absence—to run not only the roiling broadcast news division but also the ratings-challenged cable outlet MSNBC.

After a grudgingly chastened Williams claimed to have learned his lesson and promised never to do it again, Lack installed him as MSNBC’s live breaking news anchor, proving that F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong when he wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.”

THE UNSINKABLE, UNBELIEVABLE BILL O’REILLY: The winner and still champion of Fox News’s prime-time schedule (indeed, of all of cable news) is no Brian Williams. The 66-year-old host of The O’Reilly Factor—whose successful formula is an intoxicating mix of faux populism, avuncularity, brute bullying and rage—committed journalistic sins arguably far worse than Williams’s, literally fabricating various fantasies about his supposedly death-defying coverage of the Falklands War, his presence on the doorstep of a JFK assassination figure at the very moment that the man was committing suicide with a shotgun, and other egregious whoppers. (Check out this memorable exchange about making up stuff between O’Reilly and Al Franken in his pre-senatorial days).

But, in stark contrast to how NBC News execs handled the Williams imbroglio, Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes backed his most durable star to the hilt after David Corn of Mother Jones began exposing O’Reilly’s lies in February.

In November, it was left to O’Reilly’s Fox News colleague, George Will, to publicly censure the host of The Factor for shoddy journalism in his latest ghost-written best-seller, Killing Reagan.

Relying on a memo O’Reilly never bothered to acquire or read, O’Reilly’s book claims—erroneously, Will declared, citing other published sources—that the White House staff seriously considered invoking the 25th Amendment to replace the 40th president for physical and mental incapacity.

“You are actively misleading the American people—you are lying,” O’Reilly shouted at Will, who coolly shot back: “You are something of an expert on actively misleading people.”

CHANGING OF THE LATE-NIGHT GUARD: Cultural icons David Letterman and Jon Stewart abdicated their nighttime thrones—Stewart for an unknown upstart from South Africa named Trevor Noah to take over Comedy Central’s Daily Show; and Letterman’s Late Show to Stephen Colbert, a Daily Show alumnus and star of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. While both the 31-year-old Noah and the 51-year-old Colbert are smart and talented satirists, they have yet to equal their predecessors’ audience appeal, and CBS executives are said to be concerned about Colbert’s ratings plunge in his 3½ months on the broadcast network.

Samantha Bee will become the only female late night host when her show premieres on TBS on Feb. 8, 2016.

THE VIEW GETS EVEN UGLIER: The once-dominant, much-imitated women-oriented panel show, created by Barbara Walters, may not be the ratings machine of years past.

But it continues to be, in its 19th season on ABC’s daytime programming schedule, the go-to venue for melodrama and acrimony both behind and in front of the camera. A compendium of the chaos that has clouded The View includes: the firings of newbie panelists Nicolle Wallace and Rosie Perez, and the second abrupt departure of Rosie O’Donnell (who was lured back after quitting in 2007 and this October was sued for slander by a sacked producer who claimed the comedian “fell into rages, screamed at the staff, insulted them, and was so vicious that some of the staffers on the show spoke of Ms. O’Donnell using the word ‘hate’”); the desperate escape of executive producer Bill Wolff only months after he replaced the defenestrated Bill Geddie; the regular angry meltdowns of moderator Whoopi Goldberg, who reportedly kvetched backstage that ABC execs habitually treated her like a slave; and gossip that the show might finally face cancellation if GOOP doyenne Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t accept a rumored seven-figure offer to board what canned cohost Jenny McCarthy has called “the Titanic.” Say what you will about the 86-year-old Baba (who retired from the show in May 2014), she knows when to leave a sinking ship.

ROLLING STONE RETRACTS UVA STORY: After much controversy and an independent investigation by the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, on April 5 Rolling Stone magazine retracted Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s story about an alleged campus rape at the University of Virginia.

The school’s 13,000-word report into the piece, “A Rape on Campus,” cited multiple deficiencies in Erdely’s reporting and editorial oversight at the magazine.

GAWKER DISCOVERS THAT, YES, KARMA’S A BITCH: After a decade of providing snarky gossip about media figures, politicians and Hollywood celebrities—and creating a host of lifestyle, tech, and sports blogs that, in sum, amounted to a profitable $40 million annual business—Gawker founder and majority owner Nick Denton has had a change of heart.

Hulk Hogan’s potentially ruinous lawsuit in Florida concerning Gawker’s partial posting of a sex video starring the wrestling icon—which is expected to come to trial next year before a judge who is clearly sympathetic to Hogan—probably had something to do with Denton’s road-to-Damascus conversion.

But the near-universal condemnation of Gawker’s July item outing a heterosexually married Condé Nast executive—and the staff insurrection that resulted when Denton pulled the story and declared he was ashamed of it—undoubtedly sealed the deal.

Still reeling from the controversy—during which his top two editors quit, followed by several other staffers—the mortified Denton announced that the news site would, from now on, be “20 percent nicer” and concentrate on politics.

THE POWER OF A PICTURE: The image of 3-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi lying dead in the surf near Bodrum, Turkey, is one of the most powerful media images of the year, encapsulating the drama and many tragedies of the European refugee crisis.

Kurdi had been on a boat with other refugees trying to reach the Greek island of Kos. Aylan’s brother Galib and mother Rehana also died.

MIKE BLOOMBERG, JOURNALISM SAVIOR? NAH!: After three terms as mayor of New York, the 73-year-old billionaire, who once mused about running for president, tried gun-safety and environmental activism and full-time philanthropy before deciding that he was getting bored and needed to return to the helm of the 35-year-old financial information company that had made him the planet’s 13th-richest person.

Re-taking the driver’s seat in September 2014, he was less than thrilled by what he found: a bloated (to his mind) journalism powerhouse of 2,400 editors and reporters around the world—and scant attention paid to the development of Bloomberg LLP’s cash-generating, core terminal business.

Violent corporate restructuring and bloodletting soon followed, with scores of journalists losing their jobs. “Mike doesn’t even really like journalists,” a Bloomberg insider quipped, recalling the ex-mayor’s notoriously testy interactions with beat reporters during his grudging and frequently condescending press conferences at City Hall.

At an office party held when Bloomberg News’s Zachary Midler won the 2015 Explanatory Reporting Pulitzer Prize, the company’s namesake seemed to confirm that assessment, when he dryly told one of the celebrants: “This is great for the people who care about journalism awards.”

THE NINE LIVES OF ARIANNA (AND AOL): In May, when Verizon announced the $4.4 billion acquisition of historically troubled AOL—which will forever be linked to its catastrophic merger with Time Warner, which ultimately vaporized $125 million in shareholder equity—it represented a moderately happy ending for the once-ascendant Internet company whose demise was, to many in the field, a foregone conclusion. But it was a win-win for Arianna Huffington, who less than five years ago had engineered the sale of her Huffington Post digital media enterprise to AOL for an eye-popping $315 million.

The 65-year-old Huffington, who can now draw upon the impressive resources of the $190 billion telecommunications behemoth, has long displayed a genius for surfing the Zeitgeist.

When she was married to a conservative Republican California congressman in the 1990s, she was a right-wing firebrand and acolyte of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

After her divorce from former Rep. Michael Huffington—who eventually came out as gay—Arianna relocated to Brentwood, befriended politically active movie stars like Warren Beatty, and repositioned herself as a diehard liberal.

She initially launched the Huffington Post in 2005, then a collection of blogs, as a left-wing counterpoint to the influential Drudge Report. Now she’s done Drudge one better as a bona fide media mogul.

REBEKAH’S RESURRECTION: It was understandable, if not entirely predictable, when Rupert Murdoch restored his 43-year-old second son, James, to a top leadership position in June, naming him chief executive of 21st Century Fox, the non-print—and thus insanely profitable—arm of Murdoch’s media empire. (James shares authority with his older brother Lachlan, the company’s executive co-chairman along with Dad.)

The many observers who prophesied the derailment of James’s career—for his admittedly lackluster performance during the 2011 phone-hacking scandal that resulted in corporate humiliation, criminal charges and the closure of Murdoch’s News of the World, Britain’s most popular tabloid—forgot that blood is thicker than money. 

More surprising is the return to power of former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, who in September took control of News UK, Murdoch’s British publishing subsidiary.

She was deeply implicated in the illegal Fleet Street practice of hacking into celebrities’ cellphones—and that of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, provoking public outrage.

The flame-haired Brooks lost her job as CEO of Murdoch’s News International (essentially the same one she managed to get back), was arrested by the Metropolitan Police, put on trial, and ultimately acquitted on a defense of ignorance. Who knew that Rupert was such a forgiving soul?

FREE JASON REZAIAN: The Washington Post’s Tehran bureau chief—a California-born Iranian-American who was arrested 16 months ago along with his journalist-wife at their home in Iran’s capital—has passed the 520-day mark of being held hostage in the Islamic Republic’s notorious Evin Prison.

Rezaian’s Iranian-born wife, Yeganeh Salehi, was released after three months and is awaiting trial on unspecified charges.

After more than a year of physical and psychological abuse and five months of daily interrogations, the 39-year-old Rezaian was subjected to a secret trial in a so-called “revolutionary court,” a vague conviction and an indeterminate prison sentence on a bogus accusation of espionage for the United States—whose secretary of state, John Kerry, negotiated a nuclear arms deal with the ruling mullahs without first securing the freedom of Rezaian and at least three other U.S. citizens incarcerated in Iran.

THE YEAR OF REPORTING DANGEROUSLY: While Donald Trump might be willing to give his fanboy Vladimir Putin a pass on the killing of bothersome reporters—26 in Russia since the former KGB officer assumed power in December 1999, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, although none during the past two years—it’s far from obvious how our potential president-in-waiting would respond to the fact that the news biz was even more lethal this past year in Europe and the United States. Of the 69 journalists who died on the job, nine were among the 12 people killed in Paris by gun-wielding Muslim extremists during the assault on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Local television reporter Alison Parker and her cameraman Adam Ward—working the morning shift for Roanoke, Virginia’s CBS affiliate, WDBJ—were shot to death live on the air by a deranged former colleague who, equipped with a body-cam, posted his crime online, apparently taking his cue from the grisly propaganda videos circulated by the Islamic State.

GOODNIGHT AND GODSPEED: The news business said a reluctant farewell to two of its best practitioners, New York Times columnist David Carr and 60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon.

The impassioned, larger-than-life Carr—who had transformed himself, through sheer brilliance and force of will, from crack addict and girlfriend abuser to loving family man and the country’s most influential media critic—collapsed and died in the Times newsroom at age 58, the same February night that he had expertly moderated a panel on national security journalism.

The 73-year-old Simon, a self-described “Jewish kid from the Bronx,” was a dashing war reporter who regularly put his life on the line, and spent 40 harrowing days as a prisoner of Saddam Hussein’s army during the first Gulf War.

He became a much-honored correspondent for CBS News’s venerable Sunday show, practicing journalism that blended cynicism, humor, empathy, and profound spirituality.

In the sort of preposterous irony that Simon might have highlighted in one of his award-winning 60 Minutes pieces, he died—the night before Carr—not during a firefight in an exotic war zone but in the back seat of chauffeured Town Car in a completely avoidable accident on the West Side Highway.