Donald Trump has been lashing out at Stephen Colbert. What is pathetic is that Trump spends so much energy and time lashing out at others, such as light night talk show hosts. Presidents in the past have been able to pressure TV networks into muzzling critics who were comedians. Perhaps the most well-known example is how president Johnson tried and later president Nixon succeeded in leaning on CBS management to can The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1969. Long before there was cable TV with its greater freedoms, Tom and Dick Smothers were the trailblazers for today’s TV political comedians.
For every battle the Smothers Brothers won, CBS sought and got revenge. When The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour wanted to open its third season by having Harry Belafonte singing “Don’t Stop the Carnival” against a backdrop reel of violent outbursts filmed in and around that summer’s Democratic National Convention, CBS not only cut the number completely, but added insult to injury by replacing it with a five-minute campaign ad from Republican presidential nominee Richard M. Nixon.
Trump is clearly gunning for Colbert. But I am not sure if that strategy will work as well now as in Nixon’s time. TV stations are facing stiff competition from cable and the internet and are even more driven by advertising revenue. As long as a show draws in advertisers, they are likely to ignore criticisms of their stars. Look at how long Fox News put up with Bill O’Reilly’s rampant abuses. It was only after advertisers started leaving in droves that they kicked him out.
Colbert says that by talking about him, Trump walked right into his trap by boosting his visibility. Here is Colbert gleefully declaring victory.