In January, Disney was still waiting to buy Fox, Deadspin was still challenging the worlds of sports and politics, and Sarah Sanders was still the White House press secretary.
Here is a very incomplete look back at the year in media, especially when it intersected with government, business, culture, and entertainment.
News about the news
In year three of the Trump presidency, journalists reached for new ways to describe the tumultuous times — I noticed “the victim president,” “the Infowars president,” “the conspiracy theory president,” “the ‘say anything’ president,” and “the grifter president,” just to name a few. In Foxland, Lou Dobbs called him “the greatest president in our history.” At the end of the year, of course, it was “the impeached president.”
Trump’s mendacity and his propaganda machine’s complicity hit new heights during the impeachment inquiry. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler reported at the end of the year that “Trump said more false or misleading claims in 2019 than he did in 2017 and 2018 combined.” There were signs of exhaustion and numbness — the ever-present “Trump fatigue.”
The president’s near-daily complaints about the news media almost faded into the background, but there were times when the extreme nature of his rhetoric was newly shocking. In June he accused the New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” and threatened a Time journalist with prison over a Kim Jong Un letter. In September he tweeted that two Washington Post reporters “shouldn’t even be allowed on the grounds of the White House.” That same month, a federal judge ruled that the White House had to restore press access to Playboy columnist Brian Karem, who had been suspended for 30 days.
Trump also complained about Fox News more than a dozen times, usually when news anchors were reporting fact-based news or when Democratic politicians were speaking on the channel. He griped about Fox’s scientific polls and occasionally promoted OANN, a far-right channel that wants to reach Fox’s viewers. But despite the barbs, Trump leaned heavily on support from the channel’s right-wing commentators and took his cues from their shows. Fox’s chief news anchor Shep Smith suddenly resigned in October, the most high-profile example of news being squeezed out by opinion on the channel.
Back in DC, the Mueller probe came and went; on-camera White House press briefings were scrapped; and Stephanie Grisham took over as press secretary. Sanders accepted a Fox News contributor gig.
Arguably the most shocking media/politics story of the year broke in February when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos alleged that the National Enquirer attempted to extort and blackmail him. Bezos — the owner of the Washington Post and a longtime Trump target— implied that it was a political hit job.
Entertainment’s new world order
The Disney-Fox deal took effect in March, creating a media company of unparalleled scale, and a slimmed-down Fox Corp focused on live news and sports. Disney dominated the year at the box office and launched a flagship streaming service, Disney+, that will define the company’s future.
All the talk about Disney+ and other streaming launches reflected the fact that Netflix is the pace setter, establishing the model for the new streaming world order. Netflix tripled down on its original content bets, competing with the likes of Apple and Amazon.
Richard Plepler stepped down at HBO and Bob Greenblatt joined WarnerMedia (CNN’s parent company) in a top content job that included oversight of HBO. The company’s top priority became the HBO Max streaming service, which will launch in April. WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey was promoted to president and COO of AT&T, putting him in line to succeed Randall Stephenson. AT&T fended off an activist shareholder campaign. Verizon continued to shrink its digital media footprint while focusing on 5G. Sprint and T-Mobile tried to merge.
At NBCUniversal, the top priority was Peacock, which will launch in May. NBCU CEO Steve Burke will step aside on January 1, making way for Jeff Shell.
Apple launched new subscription products in both news and entertainment. (Reminder: I’m a consulting producer on one of Apple’s shows.) Analysts predicted that an Apple bundle is on the way. Other bundles launched in other categories: For instance, Luminary launched in the ever-more-crowded podcast space.
Spotify acquired podcasting companies like Gimlet Media and inked deals with programmers like Barack and Michelle Obama. Sometimes it seemed like everyone had a podcast. But companies kept betting that the ecosystem has room to grow.
Media business stories, meantime, kept giving inspiration to Hollywood storytellers: Look no further than “Succession,” “The Loudest Voice,” “Bombshell,” and, yes, “The Morning Show…”
Upheaval in digital media continued: A private equity firm acquired a set of beloved websites — including Gizmodo, Kotaku, Deadspin, Jezebel, and The Onion — from Univision. By the end of the year Deadspin was a figment of its former self. Vice bought Refinery29, Bustle Media Group bought multiple brands, and more and more websites put up pay walls to spur subscriber revenue. More and more digital newsrooms pushed to unionize.
While losses accumulated in local news, big tech companies said they would do more to support the fragile news ecosystem that has suffered from digital disruption. For the first time, Facebook started to directly pay publishers for opening up their content to the social network. Google’s support came in the form of grants and partnerships. Critics said the efforts were just a relative drop in the bucket, given the overwhelming size of the tech giants.
Despite the hardships and headwinds, news organizations produced ambitious work, from “The 1619 Project” and “The Privacy Project” at The New York Times to “The Afghanistan Papers” and “The Opioid Files” at the Washington Post. Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown was celebrated for her intrepid reporting about Jeffrey Epstein’s crimes. “We were assisted by some excellent investigative journalism,” prosecutors said when announcing Epstein’s arrest.
Newspapers explored new models to stay in business. Consolidation continued, with Gannett and Gatehouse coming together in a takeover deal that immediately led to further layoffs. In Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune became the first metropolitan daily paper in the United States to file with the IRS and turn into a nonprofit enterprise.
Speaking of not-for-profit media, John Lansing became the new chief executive at NPR, succeeding Jarl Mohn.
In other transitions, Kevin Tsujihara stepped down amid controversy and Ann Sarnoff became the new CEO of the Warner Bros studio. Adam Moss retired from New York Magazine and David Haskell took over.
Changing of the guards
In the television news world, Susan Zirinsky took charge at CBS News, signed Gayle King to a new contract, and moved Norah O’Donnell to the “Evening News.” Tony Dokoupil and Anthony Mason joined King on “CBS This Morning.” Steve Kroft retired from “60 Minutes.”
At NBC, Andy Lack and Noah Oppenheim weathered the “Catch & Kill” storm, and Oppenheim signed a new contract, putting him in line to succeed Lack after the 2020 election.
At Vice, news boss Josh Tyrangiel left when HBO’s “Vice News Tonight” was canceled. Vice hired Jesse Angelo to be the new news and entertainment chief.
Executives in newsrooms and Hollywood boardrooms increasingly came to believe that their competitors weren’t just down the street or across the country, but across platforms and around the world. The short-form video sharing app TikTok was a sensation, and it originated in China. Esports consumed more and more viewing time. The massive multiplayer game “Fortnite” collapsed into a black hole, reinvented itself and, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “remained a massive force.”
Attention was the currency, whether people were recording a funny video on a phone or buying tickets for a live taping of a podcast or getting news alerts on a smart watch or riding a connected bike. What captured your attention in 2019?