Within all the soul-searching that took place after Trump’s election win in 2016, one of the consistent themes was anger around disproportionate air-time owing to The Donald’s celebrity status.
Cable news outlets were eager to broadcast Trump rallies at length. At the time, it was hard to blame them: they were an undeniably gripping spectacle, even to those who despised him. Other candidates would see their rallies broadcast, sure, but only for as long as viewers could keep stay awake.
On top of this, programmes would trip over themselves trying book Trump onto their shows. The campaign relished in this attention, and took to offering phone interviews, a scenario which made it easier to appear on more shows, and much harder for interviewers to interject. (And with no cameras, it’s easy for aides to feed Trump information – a technique enthusiastically adopted by certain under-the-kosh technology companies, incidentally.)
All told, the pull of Trump added up, according to one estimate, to $5.6bn-worth of “free airtime” during the 2016 campaign.
That won’t happen again, broadcasters said. Here’s a report from Newsweek last month, marking that change of mood:
News coverage of President Donald Trump’s Orlando, Florida, rally Tuesday showed cable news networks and the media in general appear reluctant to give him the same $5.6 billion of free airtime he received during the 2016 election. Both CNN and MSNBC dropped live coverage of the president’s Orlando rally even though Trump had not finished his speech to the raucous crowd.
Fox News was the exception – it carried the rally in full. Fox News gonna Fox News, as they say. But, as far as the other broadcasters were concerned, they weren’t going to just let the cameras roll like they used to.
But, and excuse me for sounding like a stark-raving YouTuber, here’s the real truth the media doesn’t want you to know. It is covering Trump campaign rallies. Perhaps with even more fervour than in 2016. They’re just… different.
There were several this week: a White House Social Media Summit that didn’t involve a single social media company, but did include a Trump stump speech – carried live – in front of his biggest, most influential supporters. Everyone covered it, myself included. In case you missed it, you can watch it in full on the Washington Post’s YouTube channel.
Then on Friday, the campaign – and the cameras – moved to McAllen, Texas, where Vice President Pence took a tour of a migrant detention center. Pictures, beamed on cable news all day, included young children watching television on a bench, and grown men who seemed uncomfortable, but ultimately able to handle themselves. Pence remarked to reporters that he was not surprised by the trip as the system is overwhelmed.
Mission accomplished: a rally event designed to portray conditions as fine, actually, and to suggest the was – as ever – too many migrants. As the footage is seen all over the country tonight, on every channel, Trump knows the message will be this: “I told you there was a crisis.”
And then, it’s the weekend.
Trump told reporters on Friday that ICE would carry out raids to round-up and deport illegal immigrants, adding there was no need for it to be “secret”. This despite warnings from former officials that making plans public, even vaguely, “puts officers in a disadvantage and the agents that are out there in harm’s way”.
So why do it? It’s a campaign rally. In fact, it’s better than a rally. Speaking to the LA Times, public policy Professor Roberto Suro put it this way: “One audience is supposed to feel like something is happening, and the other is supposed to be scared to death.”
I’m not going to pretend to have an answer to this issue. It’s the media’s duty to cover what a nation’s leaders are doing – and as President, there will be no avoiding giving Trump 2020 more air time than any other candidate.
His political opponents will need to think deeply, and innovatively, about how to handle that, while editors, producers and reporters will need to keep learning how to fulfill their obligations, while simultaneously finding ways to call a spade a spade.