You’re Hired! How NBC Spent 11 Years Making Trump a Household Name, Building Foundation for His Campaign
Donald Trump’s rise as a presidential candidate has prompted many political observers to blame TV outlets for giving him historic amounts of free air time. While it’s true the media have overwhelmingly focused on Trump in their coverage during the current election cycle, there is another media phenomenon at play. NBC has spent more than a decade building his brand as a successful businessman of almost mythic proportion.
The network’s coverage of Trump was overwhelmingly and consistently positive. MRC Business found only 15 stories (out of 335) on Trump’s business failures, and 320 stories promoting him as a businessman, his businesses and his shows. The vast majority of stories were about the network’s show The Apprentice, which featured Trump.
During the period of 2004-2015, NBC had two partnerships with The Donald -- his hit reality TV show and Miss Universe, which also included Miss USA and Miss Teen USA. NBC News’s Today served as a de facto PR machine for The Apprentice and its star. Today anchors interviewed fired contestants, presented Trump as “the ultimate businessman,” and even “fired” NBC interns on a mock Apprentice called The Intern. Today also made Trump into a career savior after his “divine intervention,” as host Matt Lauer put it, allowed a scandal-plagued Miss USA to retain her crown.
NBC’s relationship with Trump was mutually beneficial, and fraught with ethical problems. Even when the network covered The Donald’s business shortcomings, NBC failed to disclose its business partnerships with him. NBC also outright advertised (complete with prices) his and his daughter Ivanka’s businesses, and engaged in activities that jeopardized its credibility as an impartial news organization. For example, NBC donated more than $500,000 to Trump’s foundation, and filmed episodes of Today from Trump venues.
Before the 2012 presidential election, NBC boosted Trump as a presidential candidate and depicted him as a political “power broker.” Access Hollywood anchor Billy Bush took Trump to the polls way back in 2004 and described him as, “The next President of the United States Donald Trump.” After a man asked Trump about running for president, Bush shouted, “Write him in,” and later asked a poll worker how many people were writing-in Trump on their ballots. Bush even told a man that while his vote was just “one vote,” Trump’s vote was “giant.” MRC Business studied NBC coverage of Trump from 2004-2015, and found:
- 21 Times More Positive Stories about Trump’s Business Success: NBC had a financial incentive to further Trump’s image as a successful businessman, and it did just that. The network’s coverage of Trump was consistently positive, with only 15 stories (out of 335) on Trump’s business failures. The remaining 320 stories promoted him or his business ventures.
- Failures to Disclose Business Relationships in Stories on Trump’s Empire: In 13 out of 15 negative stories on Trump, the network failed to disclose that it partnered with Trump on Miss Universe and The Apprentice. Although NBC disclosed its partnership with Trump in several stories about the Miss Universe pageants, the network failed to disclose its relationships with him in nearly all stories critical of his businesses. The Society of Professional Journalists warns: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and tells journalists, “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
- NBC Furthering Trump’s Political Presence: Before the 2012 election, NBC personalities depicted Trump as a political “power broker.” Chris Matthews, host of The Chris Matthews Show, nominated Trump for the “chutzpah award” after he pressured President Obama to release his long-form birth certificate. Access Hollywood anchor Billy Bush even said Trump was the “next President of the United States” in 2004. During a 2011 interview on his presidential ambitions, Trump even told Today anchor Matt Lauer, “You happen to like me because I have a very successful show on your network.”
Journalists blamed broadcast and cable media for overcovering Donald Trump in the current election cycle. But only NBC spent more than a decade building his brand as a larger-than-life businessman.
A New York Times analysis published on March 16, 2016, revealed that broadcast media gave Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump nearly $2 billion in free air time. While broadcast media certainly gave disproportionate airtime to Trump during the current election cycle, NBC inflated Trump’s public image long before he announced his candidacy.
NBC news made Donald Trump into “the ultimate businessman.” From 2004-2015, the network dubbed Trump “King of the Universe,” touted his “divine” nature in a Miss USA scandal, promoted his business during the Today show and even urged a voter to write him in on a presidential election ballot. During that time, NBC barely covered his flops as a businessman and failed to disclose its partnerships with him in critical stories.
NBC lionized Trump with 21 times more positive than negative stories. The network also severely underreported his failures as a businessman, which included Trump Network, Trump Mortgage, Trump Magazine, and many others. From 2004 through the beginning of 2015, NBC promoted Trump’s business and his success with 320 stories, but only covered his failures 15 times. In 13 of the 15 stories on Trump’s flops, the network failed to disclose its business partnerships with him.
When Trump first declared his candidacy in June 2015, NBC greeted him with substantially more coverage than the other broadcast networks. During the first several weeks of his campaign (June 16 through July 31), the NBC Nightly News devoted just less than 62 minutes to Trump's fledgling candidacy, more than ABC's World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News combined (53 minutes, 14 seconds).
It was the culmination of the network’s Trump support. More than a decade before Trump announced, NBC personality and Access Hollywood anchor Billy Bush described Trump as “The next President of the United States,” and told a man to write Trump in on his ballot.
In that Nov. 3, 2004, segment on Today, a man asked Trump, “Why don’t you run, man?” Bush responded by urging the man to, “Write him in.” Bush also asked a poll worker how many people were writing Trump in on their ballots. The poll worker said she didn’t know, but that she would be the first one to do so. Bush even told a man that while his vote was just “one vote,” Trump’s was a “giant vote.”
NBC Venerates Trump, Dubs Him 'King of the Universe'
NBC imprinted a mythic persona of Trump onto its programming, and at times exhibited almost cult-like reverence for its reality star and his success.
Trump got a literal red-carpet welcome before a Nov. 10, 2005, interview on Today. As the theme “The Imperial March,” from Star Wars played, Today weatherman Al Roker gave Trump an epic introduction.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve all have [of] course heard of Darth Vader, you’ve seen the storm troopers. Well, this is the intergalactic king of the universe ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump, of course of The Apprentice.”
While Roker narrated, Trump walked down a red carpet lined with storm troopers who turned as he walked past them. Roker then asked Trump about that night’s Apprentice episode which featured a challenge related to the new Star Wars movie.
“And The Apprentice this year, I mean you guys have really gone intergalactic now,” Roker added.
Roker’s praise was outlandish, but his colleagues managed to outdo him when they all but elevated The Donald to messiah status. Throughout its broadcasts, NBC painted Trump as a savior who rescued others from impending demise.
After Trump allowed a scandal-plagued Tara Conner to maintain her Miss USA title, Today anchors described the episode with language one might find in the New Testament. During a Feb. 3, 2007, episode of Dateline, Lauer framed the Miss USA story as Trump’s “divine intervention” saving Conner, who “promise[d] to sin no more.”
In that same episode, Lauer creepily remarked that Conner was spreading the message of “rehab and rebirth,” and asked Trump whether he thought “a resurrected Miss USA” would bode well for the pageant’s public image.
Then Today anchor Meredith Vieira similarly suggested Trump might have been “divine” on Dec. 20, 2006. “You know that old saying, ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’?” Vieira asked. “Well, I'm not sure that I would call Donald Trump divine, but he's been very forgiving to Miss USA, Tara Conner.”
In a March 3, 2013, hour-long episode, Dateline portrayed Trump as a savior, rescuing guests from the curse of winning the lottery. After NBC reporter Natalie Morales explained the “lottery curse,” a higher likelihood that winners would go bankrupt, she presented Trump as the man who could rescue them.
NBC brought the lottery winners to Trump’s headquarters in New York where Morales introduced him saying, “Well, when you think about making money, one man rises to the top. And that would be Donald Trump, of course.”
Trump then entered Dateline the same way he entered the 2016 presidential race: descending down a Trump Tower escalator with music playing in the background. Morales explained that Trump rebounded from his own monetary loss and that he wanted to “come to the rescue of our lottery winners to make sure they don’t lose all their money.”
Dateline even made the episode a family affair, bringing on Trump’s three children (Eric, Ivanka, and Donald Jr.) as advisers to the lottery winners.
The episode ended in Trump’s boardroom, where the Donald and his son judged the winners’ investment ideas. Morales closed by narrating, “After spending time with Donald Trump, they’re more confident, more determined to remain millionaires for the rest of their lives.”
On May 3, 2009, Dateline said it had “an event so special we’ll have Donald Trump here with us live.” The event was a surprise money giveaway for a family unaware of their very large inheritance.
“I love to give away money,” Trump said, “and we’re going to make some people very happy tonight.” After Trump gave the family more than $693,000, then NBC anchor Tiki Barber asked him about that night’s episode of The Apprentice.
NBC Hypes Trump's Businesses and His Success
Instead of giving its reality star balanced coverage, NBC presented The Donald as a larger-than-life businessman and often touted his success.
Today devoted an entire segment on May 29, 2005, to Trump’s golf course Trump National in Westchester, New York. Then Weekend Today anchor Campbell Brown gave Trump a glowing introduction, and described his golf courses as “phenomenal.”
“His name is synonymous with living large … He’s conquered New York real estate, taken television by storm … he’s the dean of his own university, and he’s even a big-time player in the world of golf,” Brown reported.
After the report, Brown commented to her co-anchor Lester Holt that “the people who who are regular golfers say that his courses, not just here in New York, but all over the place are fantastic!”
Today also complimented Trump’s business acumen in a Feb. 4, 2010, story on building brands. The segment featured Trump, Martha Stewart, and Sean “Diddy” Combs as the ideals. Ironically, Trump and Stewart’s brands were both tarnished after her Apprentice spin-off on NBC tanked in 2005.
Nevertheless, Vieira described Trump as an “expert” who “put his name on everything he builds and stars in his own reality show.” After Today played a clip from The Apprentice, Vieira said the result of Trump’s branding strategy was that he became “world famous.”
Today Becomes a Megaphone for The Apprentice and Miss USA
NBC amplified Trump’s public presence by giving two of its joint business ventures with him, The Apprentice and Miss USA, extensive coverage.
The advent of Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice, was mutually beneficial for The Donald and NBC. Starting in 2004, Today acted as a de facto PR machine for Trump and the show, and made giving standalone interviews to fired contestants who praised their TV boss routine for the morning show. Anchors also periodically gave long interviews to Trump about the show and its successor, Celebrity Apprentice.
Today even created a mock Apprentice called The Intern, and invited Trump on for one of the ceremonial firings. Just before Trump's Intern cameo on Feb. 26, 2004, Today host Matt Lauer introduced him as “the ultimate businessman” who would “help make Today the best conference room ever.”
Having its anchors act like Donald Trump apparently wasn’t enough for Today, however, because then-anchor Katie Couric dressed as Donald Trump for Halloween on Oct. 29, 2004.
During that episode, Today brought Apprentice judges Carolyn Kepcher and George Ross on to mimic the reality show. After Kepcher and Ross talked down to the Donald, Couric delivered Trump’s signature line: “You’re Fired!”
NBC’s Apprentice obsession was greatest in 2004, however, when Trump remarked, “I feel we’re sort of here a lot” before an April 15, interview about the show. Couric went so far as to describe who would win The Apprentice as “the burning question of our time” on April 14. She then promoted an NBC poll, asking viewers to vote on their chosen Apprentice winner.
All the hype seemed to annoy Couric on April 16, when she asked in reference to the show’s finale, “And can you believe we are discussing this so extensively?”
In addition to its Apprentice partnership, NBC and Trump co-owned the Miss Universe organization. Miss Universe was the umbrella organization for the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe pageants. Similar to its Apprentice coverage, Today interviewed multiple Miss USA and Miss Universe contestants who praised Trump.
After the media exposed Miss USA Tara Conner’s party-hard lifestyle, Trump allowed her to retain her crown on the condition that she would enter rehab. Today painted the story as a fairy tale, with Vieira describing Conner as “Weeping Beauty,” an apparent reference to the story Sleeping Beauty, on Dec. 20, 2006.
Today didn’t have a Disney prince to save Conner, but they did have the prince of an inherited empire. Gregory and Lauer furthered Vieira’s fantastical framing of the Miss USA controversy when they described Trump as a hero who rescued Conner from her impending demise.
“You can’t make this stuff up. You’ve got a beauty queen, late night partying in New York, and ‘The Donald’ coming to save the day. It’s amazing,” Gregory said during the Dec. 20, 2006, episode of Today. Lauer similarly commented that Trump “came to Conner’s rescue” on Jan. 29, 2007.
And before Lauer touted Trump’s “divine intervention” in the situation, he described Trump’s decision as “one of the most famous second chances in recent memory.” That comment came before the first of two interviews with Conner on the Feb. 1, 2007, episode of Today.
On April 16, 2004, Couric said that NBC was “really milking this thing,” in reference to The Apprentice finale. The same could easily be said about the Miss USA story as well.
In the same episode that Gregory said Trump saved the day, Today hosted psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow for a segment on second chances and forgiveness. One day earlier, Gregory announced the results of an NBC poll asking whether or not Conner should have been forced to resign.
NBC Severely Under-Reports Trump's Business Failures
NBC maintained Trump’s legendary public image by severely underreporting his embarrassing flops, and giving his business or his success 21 times more coverage than his failures.
While the network reported 320 stories favorable toward Trump or his empire, they only reported 15 stories on his failures. NBC reported on Trump’s pitfalls with Trump University, Atlantic City casinos, and lawsuits filed by his condo buyers, but neglected several other stories that would have blemished his image as a successful businessman.
Specifically, NBC news did not report on Trump Mortgage, GoTrump.com, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump Magazine, or Trump Network within the 2004-2015 timeframe.
Many of Trump’s ventures failed to last longer than a few years, but you wouldn’t have heard that watching NBC. And while the network detailed allegations of scamming against Trump University, it didn’t even mention Trump Network.
Trump Network, which the Fiscal Times said “operated like a pyramid scheme,” proved to be a great case study in Trump’s questionable business acumen. In 2009, Trump partnered with Ideal Health, a vitamin business that had a history of shocking consumer complaints.
The company formulated a vitamin regimen for customers after taking a sample of their urine. A Harvard expert on supplements reportedly said of the practice, "All of this is hocus pocus, and none of this is based on actual science." The business was sold to another company within a few years of starting.
In what resembled a cheesy late-night infomercial, Trump presented the business as a way to “opt out of the recession.”
“The economic meltdown, greed, and ineptitude in the financial industry have sabotaged the dreams of millions of people,” Trump yelled at the camera while waving his hands.
Ironically, Trump may have had a role in the scandal of that time. According to The Washington Post, Trump Mortgage reached out to people seeking sub-prime loans. And right before Trump started his mortgage company (Trump Mortgage) in 2006, he reportedly downplayed concerns about investing in the housing bubble.
In September of 2005, Trump published a blog post on the website of his now-defunct Trump University, a school geared toward people hoping to work in real estate.
In the post titled, “The Housing Bubble: Doom and Gloom Don’t Pay,” Trump asked, “Are you the type of person who takes advantage of positive situations when they present themselves, riding them out as long as they last? Or do you heed every message of doom and gloom, avoiding risks that could be some remarkable opportunities?”
In 2006, Trump told CNBC that “the real estate market is going to be very strong for a long time to come.” But his mortgage company closed in 2007, the same year the housing market collapsed. Nevertheless, Trump bragged to MSNBC in July 2015 that he knew the housing market “was a bubble that was waiting to explode.”
In response to Rosie O’Donnell attacking his business record in 2007, Trump did what he does best — he attacked Rosie for failing at the magazine business. This would prove to be an awkward moment for The Donald, considering that his own magazine folded only two years after it started. That fact eluded NBC.
And that was only one of Donald Trump’s many demonstrable failures since the 1980s: Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump Airlines, Trump Ice, New Jersey Generals, Trump: The Game, Trump’s four bankruptcies, his failed libel suit and his promotion of American Communications Network.
NBC's Relationship with Trump Fraught with Ethical Shortcomings
NBC news failed to disclose its business relationships with Trump in stories that were critical of his business empire, and outright promoted his and his daughter’s businesses on Today.
With at least two joint business ventures, NBC had an obvious incentive to downplay the reality TV star’s failures. NBC apparently thought it was necessary to disclose its business relationship with Trump, as it did in many stories about Miss USA. But when it came to disclosing in stories on Trump’s business failures, the network missed the mark.
Specifically, NBC failed to disclose in stories on Trump University, Atlantic City closings, and Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts filing for bankruptcy.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics advises journalists to, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” It also encourages journalists to “explain ethical choices and processes to audiences.”
NBC not only failed to disclose conflicts of interests, it flaunted them by promoting the Trumps’ businesses and even broadcasting from Trump venues.
Today featured items from Ivanka’s fashion line at least a dozen times, and included Trump’s venues many times during segments on getaway deals. The SPJ Code of Ethics warns against this type of behavior and directs journalists to “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”
NBC anchor Lester Holt opened the Dateline lottery episode on March 3, 2013, in one of Trump’s penthouses, which Holt described as “incredible.” Similarly, Campbell Brown described Trump’s golf courses as “phenomenal” on May 29, 2005, and basically reported a puff piece on him and his golf course Trump National.
Today seemed to violate SPJ’s admonition against special favors as well, and engaged in behavior that raised questions about the integrity of its reporting.
For example, Trump provided hotel and airfare for Today anchors Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb to travel to the Bahamas, where they hosted Today on Feb. 9, 2012. The month beforehand, on Jan. 23, 2012, Today gave away a three-night stay at the Trump International Beach Resort to its “Fan of the Week.”
Kotb and Gifford hosted Today at the Trump International Hotel & Tower on April 29, 2011, during a special viewing party for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. Then Today anchor Ann Curry also performed improv from Trump Towers on Nov. 4, 2009.
Gifford, Kotb, Couric, and Lauer all reminisced about outings at Trump venues during Today broadcasts. Lauer and Couric, for example, both attended Trump’s wedding in 2005 and mentioned it multiple times on Today.
SPJ ethics expert Fred Brown indicated that the standards for Couric and Lauer were lower because they were likely more “entertainers” than journalists.
“Matt Lauer and Katie Couric were as much entertainers as journalists. Maybe more entertainers,” Brown told MRC Business.
However, NBCUniversal brands Today as a “news” broadcast that is part of the company’s NBC News division, according to its website.
In 2012, NBC donated $500,000 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, but refused to comment on it when The Washington Post asked. Many of these actions seemed to violate another SPJ’s standard: “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.”
MRC Business reached out to NBCUniversal multiple times for information on the duration of Trump’s relationship with the network, but never received a response.
Billy Bush Goes Voting with the 'Next President of the United States: Donald Trump'
NBC boosted Trump as a presidential candidate, depicted him as fearless and described him as a Republican power broker during the 2012 election cycle.
On the same day in 2004 when Billy Bush told a voter to write Trump in on his ballot, Bush asked a poll worker, “How many people are writing in Donald Trump today, do you know?” The poll worker said she didn’t but that she would be the first one to do so.
Bush also told a voter that his vote was “one vote” while Trump’s vote was a “giant vote.”
Today hosts tied Trump’s run for president to his business by asking multiple Apprentice contestants whether they would support him four years before he actually ran. On Jan. 4, 2012, for example, Lauer asked a gathering of contestants whether they thought Trump would make a good president. Everyone raised their hands in agreement.
Lauer gave The Donald an exclusive interview on his book, Time to Get Tough: Making America #1 Again, during Today’s Dec. 5, 2011, broadcast. When Lauer asked Trump about a potential run for president, he responded in part, “You happen to like me because I have a very successful show on your network.”
Before the 2012 presidential election, NBC boosted a potential candidacy from Trump, and solidified his political presence. For example, when NBC political director Chuck Todd discounted the possibility of a Trump candidacy on May 12, 2011, Lauer cautioned, “You never know with Donald Trump, Chuck, and we shouldn’t try to predict his future.”
On Nov. 16, 2011, Todd attributed Trump’s success as a political figure to his fearless abandonment of political correctness. Host of The Chris Matthews Show Chris Matthews echoed that sentiment when he nominated Trump for a “Chutzpah Award” on Dec. 18, 2011. Matthews nominated Trump after the Apprentice star pushed President Obama to release his long-form birth certificate.
NBC similarly boosted Trump as a political player when he met with then Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich in December of 2011.
During a Dec. 5, 2011, episode of Rock Center, anchor Brian Williams described the scenario in the following way: “Newt Gingrich became the latest GOP candidate to kiss the ring, however figuratively, of Donald Trump, who insists he is a GOP power broker who says he's still considering a run himself.”
The same day, Lauer described Trump as a “power broker” before an interview with The Donald. Holt and Todd gave the same description that month, and on the Feb. 2, 2012 episode of Today, NBC reporter Peter Alexander said Trump was acting like a “self-proclaimed kingmaker.”
In a Jan. 25, 2015, interview, Trump hinted that because of Celebrity Apprentice’s success, NBC liked him “very much.” In response, Today anchor Erica Hill commented, “There’s a lot to like.” NBC’s ended its cozy relationship with Trump in 2015, after he announced his run for president and made, as NBC put it, derogatory statements by Donald Trump regarding immigrants. But after a decade of NBC showboating for the Donald, viewers should tell the network and its anchors, “You’re Fired!”
MRC Business analyzed Nexis transcripts from NBC morning news, evening news, other news programs and political talk shows (Today, Nightly News, The Chris Matthews Show, Dateline, Rock Center and Meet the Press) that contained the word “Trump” between Jan. 1, 2004, and Feb. 28, 2015, to find coverage of Donald Trump. If a story reported on or mentioned any of Trump’s businesses favorably, they were counted as business promotion stories. These included stories about The Apprentice, as well as the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe pageants. If the story primarily exposed Trump’s business failings, the story was counted as negative. Many stories were not counted if they did not directly reference Trump’s business or his role as a businessman (mentions of Trump’s hair, his political involvement prior to the 2012 election, etc.). Stories that were overwhelmingly about Trump in a non-business setting, but made casual mention of Trump as a businessman, were not counted either.
MRC Business has the following recommendation for NBC:
- Be Transparent About the Network’s Ties to Trump: As long as NBC reports on Trump as a political figure, it should disclose its previous contractual relationships with him and be transparent about its ethical processes and choices in covering him. The SPJ code of ethics admonishes conflicts of interest, both real and perceived, and advises journalists to “Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences.” NBC would do well to take that to heart.