I have always had a love-hate relationship with reality TV. When it first rose to prominence in the early 2000s, I abstained. To me, TV-watching was escapism; entertainment was a realm of suspended disbelief and aspirational living. Did I really want to watch normal people bungle about on the small screen, only to be reminded of my own mediocrity and insecurities?
But over time, reality TV evolved. The more candid, untrained contestants of MTV’s The Real World gave way to the glossy cast of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Sound bites and in-jokes made the supposedly authentic cast feel less “real” somehow. These were normal people, but with great hair and makeup that made them more like characters than individuals. The launch and success of other shows—America’s Next Top Model, Survivor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians—made reality TV less and less of a guilty pleasure. I began to watch, faux-reluctantly, from the sidelines.
Then I became an intern at People in 2009, where I began to understand exactly how a celebrity is made. So much of what I had attributed to happenstance—the rise of a baby-faced YouTube star named Justin Bieber, the entertainment empire of a family named Kardashian—was not happenstance at all, but the result of a lot of people working hard to create the illusion of an organic rise.
Publicists meticulously planned their clients’ appearances at charity events to coincide with an album release or a forthcoming film. I remember interviewing up-and-coming starlets at store openings in Soho, only to see their faces plastered across magazines and billboards shortly afterward. I shook hands with burgeoning CW stars at office meet-and-greets, and then watched them catapult into stardom with hit TV shows, fragrance ads, and action flicks within the next few months.
This was a time before Twitter had really become the marketing tool it is now, before Instagram and Snapchat even existed, allowing celebrities to interact directly with their fans. Back then, reputations lived and died based on the decisions of celebrity websites and magazines.
In late 2010, I moved over to the New York Daily News, where I became the default TV recapper of all those reality shows I had felt so ambivalent about: The Bachelor/ette, Survivor, Dancing With the Stars...and Celebrity Apprentice. “Don’t worry about the ousted model,” I wrote of season 11 contestant Hope Dworaczyk, the target of Trump’s many sexist remarks in the boardroom. “Hope’s parting words are representative of her vapid approach...‘It was cool to be fired by Trump!’”
Five years later, I would become a writer at Us Weekly, tasked with monitoring Trump’s every move, a duty that would cost me my conscience and, eventually, my job. But in retrospect, the recaps were where my complicity began. By recapping Celebrity Apprentice, I was giving rise to Donald Trump, the reality TV star. Donald Trump, the shiny beacon of success. Donald Trump, the bombastic blowhard who would go on to become president of the United States of America.
This time last year, the fact that Trump fancied himself president material still felt like a joke. He was knee-deep in the trenches, fighting for the Republican party nomination. And my job, as a staff editor at Us Weekly, was to track every tweet, speech, flub, and tirade.
I was detailing every rally. Every Twitter feud. Every unlikely, unforgivable comment he made on every television appearance in his months-long campaign for the presidency. My headlines were alternately flip and sensational. A sample: “Donald Trump Lurks Behind Hillary Clinton During 2016 Debate, Sparks Viral Meme.” My opening line: “Hark! Who goes there?” The post was easily one of our most liked, tweeted, and shared that day.
Up until the election, my job at Us Weekly had entailed covering everything from the 2016 Olympics opening ceremony to Kylie Jenner’s side boob to an unsolved murder mystery. I was an entertainment journalist. And it felt alarmingly normal to cover this former reality TV star as a celebrity, like I always had, to joke about his scotch-taped ties and poorly applied tanner rather than demand to know his policies.
Not that we were the only ones doing this. Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN and former head of NBC Entertainment, was doing it, too; media coverage of the election became a never-ending parade of terrible oddities and memes. The drama was good for ratings, good for clicks, and good for business, even as it was bad for the media’s collective conscience and the public’s ability to discern important information from entertainment. HuffPost knew this back in July 2015 and declared it would not take Trump seriously anymore, opting instead to file all coverage of him under “Entertainment.” “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” the site said in a statement. “We won’t take the bait.”
As the months wore on and Trump stuck around, it started to get to me. My coworkers and I rolled our eyes at the then-candidate’s every inane statement and action, but we knew that not reporting on them would make Us appear out of touch. We kept an eye firmly trained to social media to see which of his words and actions sparked a reaction. In meetings, we all winced at Trump’s inflammatory language, his rambling interviews, his unapologetic xenophobia. We would share stories about yelling at the TV during debates and how his misogynistic words were triggering. When it felt too overwhelming to write yet another post about his tweets, we’d slip in a lighter story about a cute celebrity baby on Instagram just to assuage our mental stress.
Us Weekly’s reporters were all working hard to deliver trustworthy journalism. We prized accuracy over urgency. Our articles went through exhaustive fact-checks and legal reviews. We remained nonpartisan even as were vocal about our disgust offline.
And yet, my journalistic ethics were being tested. How much damage was I doing by giving Trump more publicity? If I continued to write a post every time he sneezed or yelped or tried to wrangle Rosie O’Donnell into another Twitter showdown, wasn’t I just giving him the advantage of SEO, of clicks, of audience? Were we failing our readers by trivializing Trump’s gaffes and playing him off as a buffoon, when his potential presidency could result in real, dire consequences?
It was hard for us to divorce Trump from his celebrity persona, and I believe this was his intention. If there’s one thing that Trump understood that Hillary did not, it’s that the world we live in today is reality TV. And reality TV is all about characters, not individuals. It’s about distractions and smoke and mirrors.
Trump the Republican nominee was entertaining. Trump as president? That’s a whole other thing entirely.
On Election Night, watching all those states turn red at a local bar in Brooklyn, I could feel myself shaking. I began to cry. It was a visceral acknowledgment of the anger and anxiety and spite that had been pent up inside me from all those months of Trump coverage. And there was another sentiment tangled up in all that: guilt.
These intense emotions came to a head last week, when I bid farewell to my job at Us Weekly, and to an eight-year career in entertainment journalism that I had never envisioned for myself. Us Weekly had been sold to America Media Inc., perhaps best known as the publisher of The National Enquirer, resulting in the downsizing of nearly half of Us Weekly’s editorial team. I survived and was offered a position under AMI, but I had to ask myself: Did a steady paycheck outweigh my conscience? The answer, after a weekend of agonizing, was no.
I had spent the months after the election feeling complicit in helping someone like Trump slip through the cracks unchecked. I felt compelled to somehow right that wrong, and to do good by the people I had helped deceive. And I wanted to do so with a clear conscience by sidestepping AMI, which is helmed by Trump apologist David J. Pecker.
Now that I’m removed from the everyday bustle of SEO and clickability and metrics, I can see the immeasurable amount of work that has to be done to combat our new, terrifying reality. Nothing has ever felt more real, or raw, or liberating.