The Networks Blew the Call

Once again, broadcasters prove hapless in the face of Trump’s three familiar tools.

Donald Trump
Susan Walsh / AP

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump is planning to give an address on immigration, the southern border, and the government shutdown that has arisen from his insistence that any budget measure must include money for “the wall.”

When plans for the speech were announced on Monday evening, I opined on Twitter that it would be better for the major broadcasts not to carry the speech. There would have been crystal-clear precedent for their turning him down: In 2014, when Barack Obama gave a speech on his immigration-policy plans, neither CBS nor NBC nor ABC aired it live, on the argument that circumstances made the message “too political.” A closer parallel would be hard to find.

There was also a clearly unprecedented reason not to carry the speech: namely, that nearly everything Trump says on this topic is intentionally inflammatory and either carelessly or deliberately untrue. Politics always involves spin and selective emphasis, but the networks would know for sure ahead of time that they were using their resources to advance untruths.

But the networks said yes, they’ll presumably air the speech, and the question now is what else they can do to cope with the reality of an office holder who doesn’t care that he lies.

Below I make the case that the networks and other news organizations must themselves break precedent, to keep up with what Trump is trying to do. Knowing that Trump is going to attack the truth this evening, they must take active measures to defend it. They have this day to prepare. A commitment to real-time, onscreen fact-checking is at this point the most feasible goal for a speech mere hours away. In the longer run, all major media need to think about how to deal with the endless skein of choices like this they’ll face in the next two years.

It’s been nearly four years since Trump came onto the national-candidate scene. In that time, the “normal” media outlets have shown their near-helplessness against three of Trump’s most important weapons and tools.

One is the total impossibility of reestablishing the dividing line between news and entertainment. Back during Bill Clinton’s first term, I argued in Breaking the News that outlets had to be careful to remember that news and entertainment were not the same thing. Parents know that protein and vegetables are different from Mountain Dew and Spam. People filing suit or going on trial know that there’s a difference between a TV-style Judge Judy and a real, working magistrate. Schools are designed to be different from comedy clubs. And so, I argued, people in charge of the news had to remember to make their information as interesting as news could possibly be, rather than the most objectively interesting spectacle ever. In a contest for attention between entertainment and anything else, entertainment will always win. That’s what it’s for.

The challenge for the news media was to “make the important interesting,” rather than to search for the purely interesting. Car-crash footage or the last seconds of a sudden-death playoff game will always be more eye-catching than reports on a drought, or sexual-harassment patterns, or emergency-room standards, or a million other topics. But things that are merely interesting will never lack for coverage. The definition of news is that it attempts to explain things that matter, things that a democratic society needs to know about in order to make sane decisions.

Trump has been the most entertaining figure on the public stage since he came down the golden escalator in 2015. TV news, in particular, has therefore not been able to resist showing him (and his rallies) or talking about him. It’s the civic equivalent of seeing that 9-year-olds are guzzling down Mountain Dew and asking for more Spam, and just giving them more. Trump’s going live? Let’s switch to the White House! This needs to change.

The second, long discussed, is the difference between Trump and all previous figures when it comes to public lies. From Richard Nixon and long before to Bill Clinton and long after, normal public figures have told normal lies. That is, they have lied when they had to; they have lied when it was useful; they have lied when they thought they wouldn’t get caught.

Trump just lies. He doesn’t know, or he doesn’t care, about the difference between claims that are true and those that are obviously made up. (Daniel Dale, of the Toronto Star, has indefatigably cataloged Trump’s lies, at a rate of more than 100 a week.) Maybe 4,000 “terrorists” have been apprehended at the southern border? Maybe zero? Who can ever really know? Over the past week, Trump has claimed that former presidents “privately” told him they supported building his wall. All four living ex-presidents have taken the unusual step of denying that they said any such thing.

It is very hard for the press to fact-check or otherwise cope with a figure of this sort. In exposing someone’s lies, they rely on the fact that he or she would care about being caught—much as religious or ethical leaders rely on the power of the guilty conscience.

Trump doesn’t care. He can’t be shamed. The press (except for Dale) tires of detailing his lies before Trump tires of telling them.

The third is the press’ whipped-dog cringe in anticipation of criticism about any supposed bias toward the left. The simplest illustration, again, is the contrast between their handling of Obama’s recent request in 2014 and this one by Trump. After the Obama decision, news executives lost not a moment of sleep out of concern about attacks from liberal groups for “right-wing bias.” They thought about it as a news decision, and presented it that way. But the certainty of an “enemy of the people!” onslaught by Trump, Fox News, and their allies indisputably weighed on the executives’ minds yesterday.

The network executives’ position has a lot in common with that of the Senate Republicans. Each group knows with perfect clarity what Trump is actually doing. The Senate Republicans know that Trump is using the wall as a distraction and life raft. They know that because they unanimously approved, by voice vote, a plan to keep the government open, with no mention of the wall, before Trump panicked in the face of criticism from Ann Coulter and Fox News. They could pass that resolution again tomorrow—but they won’t speak up in public, so fearful do they remain of being criticized, too. For their part, the network executives know exactly what Trump will do if given air time. (Though they also realize that the formal Oval Office speech is Trump’s weakest venue. He’s not good at reading prepared texts, with his trademark ad-libs of “That’s so true” when he encounters lines he has clearly never seen before.) But they are giving it to him.

They were not afraid of criticism for turning down Obama. They are afraid about what would happen if they turned down Trump. You can think of lots of explanations. But the difference is clear.

An instructive parallel: During the 2016 campaign, James Comey’s FBI was closemouthed about the ongoing investigations of Trump and his Russian connections. To have said anything about them would have opened the bureau to criticism of playing politics. But when it came to discussing Hillary Clinton’s email situation, obviously the calculus of potential criticism was different. Again, you can think of explanations. My point for now is what military planners call the “asymmetric risk,” which warped the FBI’s behavior and that of much of the press.

These are real problems that can’t be solved easily but that at least should be recognized as this election cycle begins. In The Washington Post, the former New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan lays out a useful set of guidelines for avoiding the most obvious perils. Similarly: Jay Rosen of Press Think, Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University, and many others. But Trump’s speech offers an immediate test case.

A “second best” option would be to carry an opposing speech, as networks routinely do after the State of the Union address. That is better than nothing because some other figure—a governor, a senator, whoever else—can directly call out Trump’s misstatements. But it is second best because it will inevitably cast what should be a contrast between reality and dark fantasy instead as a familiar Democrat-versus-Republican, “reasonable people can disagree” partisan dispute.

The better choice would be fearless real-time fact-checking, presenting in sync with Trump’s misstatements the best ascertainable facts. You want a substantive example of how this can be done? Watch once more Chris Wallace’s handling of Sarah Huckabee Sanders this past weekend on Fox News. (He knew what falsehood she had been circulating, he read up on it, and he was prepared to say, “But in fact …”) In format, the fact-check approach during a speech would have to be different. But this is what split screens are for. The bottom panel of the screen, where “the scroll” is usually found, or a right-hand column, like the one ESPN uses on many shows, could be the fact-based Greek chorus. (If you prefer, the model could be Mystery Science Theater 3000.)

Either of these approaches would reflect some awareness that dealing with Trump is not like dealing with other public figures. We’ll see how much the press has learned on this front, starting tonight.