It’s been just under 600 days since Ted Cruz announced his ill-fated quest for the White House, kicking off what’s become a long national nightmare of a presidential campaign. But even as most of us look forward to what (fingers crossed) should be a final decision next week, the seemingly endless election cycle has not been without its winners — at least in the TV industry.
Cable-news ratings have soared, from the record-shattering Nielsen numbers for the first 2015 Republican primary debate to triple-digit ratings gains for CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Local TV stations and national networks also saw a flood of extra advertising revenue, while the rise of Donald Trump and the unexpectedly competitive Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders boosted viewership and web traffic early and often.
And then there are those personalities who’ve managed to make the most of the Campaign from Hell, folks who emerged from the debris of this nasty, brutish, and not-so-short 19-month crusade better off than when it began — we’ve put together a list of 20 such individuals here. Important caveat: As with Clinton and Trump, opinions regarding the relative merits of various pundits, journalists, and politically minded entertainers can be highly polarized and subject to partisan interpretation. So while we’ve tried to be fair and include a mix of conservatives, moderates, and liberals, let’s face it: We’re part of the dishonest, sleazy, and rigged media Establishment. Sean Hannity never really had a chance of making our list.
*An earlier version of this post misidentified Brianna Keilar. We regret the error.
The talk-radio veteran and former managing editor of The Grio doesn’t hide her progressive worldview, but she rarely comes across as an advocate for any ideology or candidate. Reid first stood out this cycle during the protracted primary season, where she was among the first TV pundits to pick up on Senator Bernie Sanders’s problems with nonwhite Democratic voters. After MSNBC bungled the departure of the respected Melissa Harris-Perry, Reid inherited Harris-Perry’s weekend timeslots. The new show — AM Joy — isn’t nearly as wonky or policy-focused as its predecessor, but it’s also not two hours of candidate surrogates screaming at each other while trying to blurt out talking points. Just the opposite: Reid hosts what’s easily the best weekend news program on any network, broadcast or cable.
Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper may be CNN’s primary election anchors — and both did fine work this cycle — but Tapper clearly established himself as CNN’s most important journalistic force during the never-ending campaign. His dogged questioning of Trump regarding his racist attack on the judge in the Trump University case demonstrated to other reporters how to not let Trump wriggle away from a question he doesn’t like. Tapper has been equally tough on Clinton surrogates, which helps explain the stolen John Podesta email in which the Clinton campaign chairman asked, “Why is Jake Tapper such a dick.” Ronald Reagan probably asked a similar question at some point about legendary ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. The fact that both campaigns have reason to be annoyed with Tapper means he’s probably doing something right.
To be honest, Saturday Night Live’s campaign comedy hasn’t been particularly amazing during the 2016 cycle, at least not judged by the high bar it set for itself in past campaigns. But the show completely nailed its candidate impersonations, in part by reaching outside its core cast to find both the perfect Bernie Sanders (David) and, this fall, a brilliant take on Trump (Baldwin). As Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin, Baldwin has at times seemed indistinguishable from his real-life counterpart; David had the easier task of reminding viewers how much Sanders reminded us of David’s already-established persona. McKinnon, though, has gained the most through her Clinton impersonation, cementing her status as SNL’s most valuable player.
News outlets hire top staffers from past campaigns on the theory they’ll be able to provide context and insight for the current one. When those former officials are too partisan or otherwise conflicted — like CNN’s Corey Lewandowski, and, until last month, Donna Brazile — both the network and viewers lose. CNN’s Axelrod and NBC News’ Wallace, however, have been outstanding this cycle, consistently looking past their respective ideological biases to call the balls and strikes of this campaign relatively fairly. The Trump and Clinton campaigns have had reasons to be annoyed at both of them at various points.
The too-long, never-ending 2016 campaign has made minor heroes of numerous print and TV correspondents, but NBC’s core group of road warriors has been the most impressive. Tur and Jackson in particular have done amazing work chronicling the barely controlled chaos of the Trump movement, with Tur having to endure personal insults from the candidate himself on more than one occasion. The foursome, along with NBC veteran and TV news icon Andrea Mitchell, are also a constant presence on MSNBC’s daytime lineup. But it’s with their regular dispatches for NBC Nightly News — a broadcast whose average audience of eight million exceeds the prime-time numbers of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News combined — that the NBC trail team stands out. On a consistent basis, their segments are light years more detailed and far better reported than those on rivals ABC and CBS.
Long before the Access Hollywood tape came out, Kelly put the issue of Trump’s misogynistic language on the table during the very first GOP primary debate, a grilling which led to the candidate’s now infamous “she had blood coming out of her … wherever” response the next day. It doesn’t matter that Kelly would later go easy on Trump in a prime-time interview for the Fox network, or that she still regularly panders to Fox News’ conservative base. The 2016 cycle allowed Kelly to permanently distinguish herself from the blind partisanship of her Fox News prime-time colleagues, and set her up for even bigger things in 2017.
Many left-leaning late-night comedians (Bill Maher, John Oliver) spent much of the campaign worshipping at the altar of Bernie Sanders, and generally seemed most motivated by their disdain for Trump. Bee, meanwhile, called BS on Sanders (particularly his more zealous supporters) and was unapologetic in her praise of the potential first female president. But beyond her worldview, Bee and her Full Frontal team simply produced the best fake news coverage of the election. A segment this week in which Bee traveled to Russia to interview actual online trolls working to sway American political opinion was worthy of 60 Minutes, while deep dives into the Libertarian Party and other ideological subcultures offered far more nuance than many “real” news broadcasts attempt these days.
MSNBC’s numbers-cruncher-in-chief breaks down polling data better than anyone else on TV. Kornacki outshines his rivals because, as a world-class political geek, he’s often able to use historical context and precedent to interpret raw data. It’s a skill set that has also served him well in his newish role as an MSNBC weekday anchor: His daily 4 p.m. hour is must-see TV for campaign junkies. If Chris Matthews were to ever retire, Kornacki would be the logical (and far less caffeinated) replacement.
There have been plenty of principled Never Trump conservative commentators willing to speak out against the Orange Menace, but none have done so as effectively as CNN’s Navarro and Setmayer. Navarro has understandably, and perhaps even justifiably, gotten the most attention because her denunciations of Trump have been the most passionate and eloquent. But Setmayer has also been forceful and consistent in sounding the alarm about the threat Trump poses both to the conservative movement and the country as a whole. CNN has been rightly skewered for putting former Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski on its payroll, as well as for its reliance on “super panels” of partisan pundits yelling at one another while little of substance gets said. Navarro and Setmayer went a long way toward balancing things out.
It’s often hard for sane pundits to be heard over the obnoxious braying of CNN’s paid Trump surrogates, but Jones somehow manages to cut through the noise. Like his conservative counterpart Ana Navarro, the former Obama administration staffer (infamously forced out of his job in 2009) has not shied away from forcefully— yet respectfully— confronting fellow CNN panelists. And though he’s an unapologetic liberal— or maybe because he is— Jones has often been just as tough on the Clinton campaign (mostly during the primary season, when his loyalties seemed to lean a bit toward Bernie Sanders’ movement.) Jones’ emotional high point this election season came back in March, when he laid bare the racist DNA of the Trump campaign.
Headed into 2016, conventional wisdom had CBS’s Stephen Colbert best positioned to step up and assume Jon Stewart’s mantle as the dominant progressive political voice in late-night. But while Colbert has rallied a bit since the conventions, he spent too much of this cycle unfocused and comedically confused, aiming to satisfy an imagined broader base of CBS viewers. Meyers, however, has had no such problem. Particularly with his A Closer Segments, Meyers has put his own (successful) spin on Stewart’s comedy of righteous indignation, more often than not focusing his ire on the unique candidacy of Trump.
Nate Silver remains the poster wonk for data-driven political journalism, but 2016 produced a potential heir in the form of “Whiz Kid” Enten, who, appropriately enough, is based at Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. The 28-year-old Enten’s calm and clear-headed explanations of the latest polling has made him a go-to guest for numerous MSNBC hosts, particularly in the closing weeks of the campaign. Oh, and he’s even got his own (small) subgroup on Reddit.
Three words: “All of them.”Photo: Richard Chapin Downs Jr/Getty Images)