05 January 2019

The making of an American idol

A profile of TV producer Mark Burnett in the January 7 New Yorker understandably focuses on the production of The Apprentice, the "reality" show that reinvigorated Donald Trump's celebrity a decade or so ago. The contents-page blurb credits Burnett with "rehabilitating" Trump's image at a time when the developer was in relative disrepute. Patrick Radden Keefe shows some of the editorial manipulation that helped make that happen. He explains that, contrary to what I'd heard, Trump himself did decide who got "fired" after each episode, but often had "little grasp of who had performed well" and who hadn't. It thus fell on the producers to vindicate Trump's sometimes-whimsical choices by "scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up." This practice of "editing in reverse" strikes me as a more "authoritarian" practice than anything Trump's team has done in the White House, though one Apprentice staffer notes with inevitable snark that "they're doing the same thing" there now. If so, it is less effective now, if only because news is a less controlled environment, and not just one producer. Back then, Trump himself was amazed at the results. He told Esquire that people who had seen him as an "ogre" now liked him, while his publicist told a biographer that "people on the street embraced him" -- literally?-- and "there was none of the old mocking." The show had succeeded in making Trump appear authoritative and decisive, thanks to the magic of editing, with all the consequences we sed today.

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