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Media Matters

Osita Nwanevu
6 min read
Roman Roy and ATN's Darwin Perry standing across from each other at a table with a TV playing election returns behind them.
Roman Roy and ATN's Darwin Perry in Succession's Election Night episode.

Hey all. Let’s hop to it.


There won’t be any spoilers in this post if you haven’t seen it already, but I’ve been an avid watcher of Succession from near the beginning, and I rushed straight home to catch the finale on Sunday night. I thought it was a balanced and efficient end to the series ⁠— the fireworks didn’t seem forced or incongruous and it all made sense. I’ve been a critic of this last season in general, though. The parts of it that really moved and disturbed a lot of journalists and people close to politics in particular ⁠— the Election Night episode and the machinations around the rise of Jeryd Mencken, the series’ right-wing populist demagogue ⁠— felt like missteps to me. There’s a slightly off, uncanny valley aspect to the way the series depicts American politics and the conservative press.

In a recent column, Ross Douthat offered his own thoughts ⁠on the show’s verisimilitude, or lack thereof:

A key question throughout the show’s seasons has been whether “Succession” is ultimately the drama of, well, succession promised by the title — a story in the style of “The Godfather,” where one of the main characters emerges as the (corrupted) heir to the father’s empire — or whether it’s headed for a version of the “Hamlet” ending, where everybody stabs or poisons everybody else and some outsider shows up to claim the throne. With two episodes left, the dice seem loaded for the second outcome: Failsons and a faildaughter lose their company and, oops, bring down the American republic along the way.
As a political drama, which “Succession” is at least secondarily, both of these narratives are essentially elite-driven and family-driven, suggesting a world where to understand what happens in American politics, you mostly need to understand the pressures and pathologies afflicting a narrow group of power brokers.
Which is, certainly, part of the truth. I write a lot about elites, everybody writes a lot about elites, because as the word suggests they’re pretty important to figuring out what’s going on in society — and also because when you write about politics for a living, you’re often writing for an audience that thinks of itself as at least elite-adjacent, part of the professional class, the overclass, the meritocracy.

That focus on elites, Douthat goes on to argue, can leave the public ⁠— “mass opinion, ‘the people,’ anything from a national majority to a primary-season electorate or just a particularly large television audience” ⁠— on the sidelines of both our fictional narratives and our coverage of real-world politics. I largely agree with this and I’ve given some thought in the past to the incentives journalists have, as he notes, to exaggerate the influence of their subjects and intended audiences. But elites do matter somewhat; I think it’s a strange overcorrection to say in particular, as some on the left have this season of Succession, that the powers that be in media don’t have much real influence over political outcomes in this country.

The channels of influence don’t really look the way they were depicted on the show as best as I can tell, but it’s an odd time in America to be minimizing their existence. We don’t talk about it, but much of the blame for Trump’s rise rests squarely with television executives ⁠— not just the head honchos at Fox News who had the network carry water for him, but the presumably moderate to liberal execs at NBC who reconstructed and burnished his public image in the 2000s with The Apprentice, which premiered while both his business empire and his reputation as a shrewd and successful dealmaker were in tatters. Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2019 profile of The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett is a still a must-read on all this, as well as the world of reality television writ large:

At the start of “The Apprentice,” Burnett’s intention may have been to tell a more honest story, one that acknowledged Trump’s many stumbles. Burnett surely recognized that Trump was at a low point, but, according to Walker, “Mark sensed Trump’s potential for a comeback.” Indeed, in a voice-over introduction in the show’s pilot, Trump conceded a degree of weakness that feels shockingly self-aware when you listen to it today: “I was seriously in trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back, and I won, big league.”
The show was an instant hit, and Trump’s public image, and the man himself, began to change. Not long after the première, Trump suggested in an Esquire article that people now liked him, “whereas before, they viewed me as a bit of an ogre.” Jim Dowd, Trump’s former publicist, told Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, the authors of the 2016 book “Trump Revealed,” that after “The Apprentice” began airing “people on the street embraced him.” Dowd noted, “All of a sudden, there was none of the old mocking,” adding, “He was a hero.” Dowd, who died in 2016, pinpointed the public’s embrace of “The Apprentice” as “the bridge” to Trump’s Presidential run.
The show’s camera operators often shot Trump from low angles, as you would a basketball pro, or Mt. Rushmore. Trump loomed over the viewer, his face in a jowly glower, his hair darker than it is now, the metallic auburn of a new penny. (“Apprentice” employees were instructed not to fiddle with Trump’s hair, which he dyed and styled himself.) Trump’s entrances were choreographed for maximum impact, and often set to a moody accompaniment of synthesized drums and cymbals. The “boardroom”—a stage set where Trump determined which candidate should be fired—had the menacing gloom of a “Godfather” movie. In one scene, Trump ushered contestants through his rococo Trump Tower aerie, and said, “I show this apartment to very few people. Presidents. Kings.” In the tabloid ecosystem in which he had long languished, Trump was always Donald, or the Donald. On “The Apprentice,” he finally became Mr. Trump.
[...] Originally, Burnett had planned to cast a different mogul in the role of host each season. But Trump took to his part more nimbly than anyone might have predicted. He wouldn’t read a script—he stumbled over the words and got the enunciation all wrong. But off the cuff he delivered the kind of zesty banter that is the lifeblood of reality television. He barked at one contestant, “Sam, you’re sort of a disaster. Don’t take offense, but everyone hates you.” Katherine Walker told me that producers often struggled to make Trump seem coherent, editing out garbled syntax and malapropisms. “We cleaned it up so that he was his best self,” she said, adding, “I’m sure Donald thinks that he was never edited.” However, she acknowledged, he was a natural for the medium: whereas reality-TV producers generally must amp up personalities and events, to accentuate conflict and conjure intrigue, “we didn’t have to change him—he gave us stuff to work with.” Trump improvised the tagline for which “The Apprentice” became famous: “You’re fired.”
NBC executives were so enamored of their new star that they instructed Burnett and his producers to give Trump more screen time. This is when Trump’s obsession with television ratings took hold. “I didn’t know what demographics was four weeks ago,” he told Larry King. “All of a sudden, I heard we were No. 3 in demographics. Last night, we were No. 1 in demographics. And that’s the important rating.” The ratings kept rising, and the first season’s finale was the No. 1 show of the week. For Burnett, Trump’s rehabilitation was a satisfying confirmation of a populist aesthetic. “I like it when critics slam a movie and it does massive box office,” he once said. “I love it.” Whereas others had seen in Trump only a tattered celebrity of the eighties, Burnett had glimpsed a feral charisma.

That charisma and all NBC’s writers and editors did to exaggerate Trump’s business acumen rekindled his celebrity and interest in his political opinions. The rest, unfortunately, is history. Now it would be wrong to suggest that the election of a Republican president in 2016 was somehow preordained by all of this; a broad array of factors brought the political situation the country faced that year about. But I do think we can credit the ascension of Trump, as a distinct individual with all of the problems that have been particular to him, mostly to the commercial incentives and business decisions that put him on millions of TV screens for several years running. I don’t think the media exerts fully independent influence on political outcomes ⁠— those incentives and decisions are shaped by economic and social forces larger than the networks and the papers themselves. And as Douthat says, the preferences of viewers matter. As corrosive as Fox News has been, it is not the wellspring of reactionary politics in the United States; we’d still have millions and millions of very right-wing voters in this country if it disappeared tomorrow. But there’s a constant give and take between the media and its audiences; they influence and challenge each other. And while no one in the press controls the levers of the macro level forces in American life, I do think the individual agency and personalities of elites can shape the specific contours of political events ⁠— not necessarily what events play out, but how they do. I’ll have more to say on this, I think, in an upcoming podcast appearance.

A Song

“Nutbush City Limits” ⁠— Ike & Tina Turner (1973)