Hager said there are also viewers “who really, really follow politics and want to understand better who these guys are in the city who are making the decisions that affect their lives.”
One viewer the Sunday shows have grown to count on is Trump. Todd told me that, at one point, the president would record and watch all five Sunday shows, though he’s not sure how much that happens anymore. “I remember Corey [Lewandowski] telling me a story about how it took up half his Sunday,” Todd said, referring to Trump’s former campaign manager. The president “fast forwards, but he watches all five.” Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders didn’t respond to an email about how the president’s Sunday-morning viewing habits have evolved.
Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor who has previously called himself a “disgusted viewer and longtime critic of the Sunday shows,” is wary of what he calls the “audience of one” problem with administration officials appearing on TV.
“It seems like they’re not actually even trying to explain the Trump government to the public,” said Rosen in an interview. “They’re trying to fight with the show in a dramatic enough fashion to prove to the president that they’re on his side.” Perhaps no appearance better captures this dynamic than Conway’s spot on Meet the Press in January 2017, when she famously told Todd that then–White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was deploying “alternative facts.”
The lie detector in the age of alternative facts
Given that wrinkle, the Sunday shows have drawn criticism for giving administration officials so much airtime. Rosen pointed to a recent appearance from Kudlow on State of the Union, when he called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s G7 criticisms of Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs a “diplomatic betrayal.”
“He seemed to be unhinged in a way, but if you look at it as he’s just trying to persuade Trump that he’s a strong [ally], then it kinda makes sense,” Rosen said. “But then why would you give a platform to that? How does that serve your viewers?”
Jake Tapper says his tough reputation sends a strong message that his show cannot be used as a platform for administration grandstanding.
“My experience with this White House is not really all that dissimilar, believe it or not, from my experience with the last White House, which is, I think they regard me as somebody who’s going to ask them questions that they don’t necessarily want to be asked,” Tapper told The Atlantic in a phone interview. “And I am not necessarily their first choice when it comes to putting people on to get the administration message out.”
Jake Tapper would prefer not to be so agitated.
Tapper once tried to combat this problem on the fly during a bizarre performance from the senior adviser Stephen Miller in January, when he yelled over Tapper about Michael Wolff’s controversial book Fire and Fury. “There’s one viewer that you care about right now and you’re being obsequious. You’re being a factotum in order to please him,” said Tapper, whose producers cut Miller’s mic as the host moved onto his next segment. “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time,” he concluded.