The most important thing on the screen of almost any cable-news broadcast—with apologies to human television anchors—is the chyron.
That headline-like block of contextualizing text at the bottom of the screen is the essence of the medium. It tells you what you need to know without banter or blond hair. It’s there to orient the most passive of viewers—the person who glances at the screen from across the gym or the airport terminal. And it frequently reveals a network’s editorial values. A cable-news broadcast without that little ticker of text would be like the cover of the New York Post without a screaming, all-caps headline. The chyron isn’t just an added touch. It’s the first thing people look for.
And so people noticed, because how could you not, when Fox & Friends briefly displayed a chyron early Sunday morning that declared: “TRUMP CUTS AID TO 3 MEXICAN COUNTRIES.”
This was apparently an attempt to contextualize the Trump administration’s announcement on Saturday that it would cut aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—three Central American countries that are not, to be clear, Mexico. Trump had characterized the move in retaliatory terms. “We were paying them tremendous amounts of money, and we’re not paying them anymore because they haven’t done a thing for us,” he told reporters. But Fox characterized it—inaccurately, embarrassingly, tellingly—in a way that seemed to evoke some greater truth about the Trump administration, Fox & Friends, and anyone else who sees immigration and Mexico as synonymous and similarly threatening.
TheFox & Friends slipup—later corrected, on air, by one of the hosts—suggests with chyron clarity what we can expect from Trump on the subject of immigration in the coming presidential campaign. Trump is a feelings-not-facts kind of guy—it’s why he seems so comfortable with bad information that might feel right to a person in a position of vulnerability, and it’s what makes him such a gifted communicator. It’s not that Trump can read a room, though he can—it’s that he knows and understands every single touchpoint that might make a person react. And that’s why Trump gets the importance of the chyron.
“Sure, he liked to hear pundits saying nice things about him or White House officials defending him from attacks,” wrote the former White House communications aide Cliff Sims in his book Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House, “but everything came back to how does it look?”
The most “Trumpian tactic” in the White House’s playbook is arguing with TV networks about the language in the chyrons, an effort led by a senior strategy staffer who focuses on getting them changed, Sims writes in his book. “People watch TV on mute,” Sims says the president told him, “so it’s those words, those sometimes beautiful, sometimes nasty little words that matter.” When the president delivers a speech, his research team takes screenshots of all the chyrons that appear on various networks during his remarks—with the goal of having a top aide “meet him on the ground floor of the residence and hand him the packet to review mere moments after Marine One landed on the South Lawn,” Sims wrote.
Trump has a preternatural instinct for how the media works—how it can captivate people, how it looks real but doesn’t have to be. He’s not a man who feels much romance for the depth and details of the written word—but he understands something elemental about how humans think that those who scoff at him might not appreciate.
The Obama administration had increased the aid flowing to Central America in an effort to improve conditions on the ground and stem the tide of migration. If you want to tackle the complex challenges of governance, economic development, and security, you need to understand the problems of each nation in detail. The Trump administration has instead focused on deterrence: building walls, separating families, and now slashing aid. If your solution to the migrant crisis is to ratchet up the pain of migration until it slows, understanding specifics is not necessary. One Mexico, or three, or five—the solution is the same.
And sometimes, a chyron can get the nature of a policy right by getting the details wrong.