By Susan J. Douglas
April 4, 2018

Like over 22 million others, I watched the 60 Minutes ratings-bomb interview with Stormy Daniels, the adult film star alleging a sexual encounter with and attempted cover-up by President Donald Trump. The story of course is newsworthy, not only because we’re unaccustomed to hearing “porn star” and “president” in the same sentence, but also because there might have been a violation of federal election laws. Paying Daniels $130,000 for her silence just before the election could be legally interpreted as an “in-kind” campaign contribution designed to influence the contest. The law requires such contributions to be reported; this one was not.

But let’s be honest: Was the potential violation why 60 Minutes aired the breathlessly hyped interview, why so many tuned in, and why Anderson Cooper asked Daniels if Trump used a condom? It’s doubtful. Daniels’s media-savvy attorney, Michael Avenatti, knows that sex sells. So he’s been sprinkling a trail of salacious breadcrumbs across the media for weeks, hinting at possible DVD evidence of an affair between Daniels and the president and that other women may still come forward.

Of course, if Federal Election Commission (FEC) violations did occur, they should be exposed. But let’s not pretend that this is what has prompted the mainstream media, especially the cable news channels, to obsessively flog this story. It is sensationalism, pure and simple. And Daniels, smart and shrewd herself, whose career is built on media titillation, knew what 60 Minutes wanted: an account of a spanking, Trump creepily likening her to his daughter, the no-condom revelation.

How did we get here?

The 2016 presidential campaign, and Trump’s subsequent election and presidency, have all been a culmination of a major upheaval in the news media that has been brewing since the 1990s: entertainment increasingly colonizing our overly commercialized, profit-driven, ratings-obsessed news channels. Trump, a flamboyant, attention-seeking candidate, was catnip to cable and broadcast news with aging audiences and stagnant ratings. His tweets, rallies, and phone calls set the agenda. Once he became president, a news media chastened by what some felt was an abdication of responsibility quickly went into fact-checking mode.

But something else happened. With a reality TV star in the White House, the news started covering it like a reality TV show. We’ve gotten gossip, speculation, anticipation, and a lust for confessions and revelations. Who’s backstabbing who? Who’s on the outs? What will (fill in the name) do next? Who will spill to the media?

This is the well-trod terrain of celebrity journalism. With Trump, the Brangelina of the news media, Daniels is just the latest shiny object.

This has led to a situation in which some crucial issues—reporting on entire regions of the world, major policy changes at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Department of Housing and Urban Development, how the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) roundups are affecting both individuals and the businesses they work in—are barely covered or totally uncovered, becoming what some critics call “news deserts.”

These stories (and many others) have a much greater impact on a vast number of Americans than Daniels’s one-night stand with Trump does. Maybe if the stories just had more sex and intrigue, they’d get the in-depth attention they deserve.

Susan J. Douglas is the Catherine Neafie Kellogg professor and Arthur F. Thurnau professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan.

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