Should cable news networks air President Donald Trump’s words in real time?
Since the 2016 campaign, news organizations have evolved in terms of how they have covered Trump. Cable news networks, for instance, no longer air every Trump rally live, instead choosing to monitor the events and bring viewers information from them which is deemed newsworthy.
But while the cable news networks have taken a stringent approach on the President’s rallies, the same networks have continued airing the President’s remarks during lengthy pool sprays and briefings live or as soon as footage becomes available.
On Wednesday, for instance, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all aired more than thirty minutes of Trump rambling during a pool spray during a cabinet meeting.
In the pool spray, Trump made a number of false claims, including comments on Afghanistan so historically inaccurate that it prompted the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board to say it could not “recall a more absurd misstatement of history by an American President.”
On Thursday afternoon, CNN and Fox News then aired in its entirety a political stunt initially promoted to reporters by the White House as a briefing.
And on Friday, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all carried Trump as he rambled for approximately 15 minutes before taking questions about the government shutdown and other topics at a Rose Garden press conference.
In effect, the practice of airing Trump’s remarks in real-time, as networks did this week, gives the President a platform to reach millions of people at once and dominate the conversation – and Trump often uses the opportunity to deceive viewers by peddling misinformation and falsehoods.
Trump’s comments are almost always followed by informed analysis and fact-checking, but some media critics say cable news networks should still rethink carrying Trump on-air as he delivers remarks. The issue has even united some individuals on differing ends of the political spectrum.
Todd Gitlin, a professor at and chair of the Ph.D. program at the Columbia Journalism School who is also a longtime progressive writer, and Jack Shafer, the libertarian Politico media columnist, both told CNN Business separately that they do not believe networks should rush to air Trump’s remarks.
As Gitlin put it, networks should not “air gibberish in a huge hurry.”
“Cut it into a piece interweaved with fact-checking ASAP,” Gitlin said. “Use corrective chyrons. What’s the rationale, after all, for rushing to serve his schedule?”
“Because you can’t know until after either event whether the event was newsworthy or just a PR stunt, maybe the best policy is to run more of the ‘official’ news the administration conjures each day on edited tape delay,” Shafer said in a separate email.
That view was echoed by Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for The Washington Post and former public editor for The New York Times, who told CNN Business, “I would prefer to see news organizations harvest whatever is newsworthy from [rallies, sprays, briefings] and air parts of them with appropriate fact-checks and context. Otherwise we run the risk of being used for purely political purposes.”
MSNBC, the cable news network targeting a liberal-leaning audience, has to some extent adopted such a practice. White House press briefings are few and far between at this point, but when they have taken place, the network has recently avoided taking them live and in their entirety. When Trump gave up the microphone to allow members of the border patrol union to speak Thursday, MSNBC cut away.
“If the President makes a new announcement or takes questions we will return to the briefing,” explained the Twitter account for “Deadline White House,” the MSNBC program that was on air at the time.
A spokesperson for MSNBC told CNN Business that such decisions “are made on a case by case basis driven by the substance of the briefings and the pace of the day’s news.” The spokesperson added that “show teams have a good deal of creative control,” but noted that producers “also coordinate closely with network executives.”
Spokespeople for both CNN and Fox News declined to comment on the record. But television executives privately argued that the President’s comments are inherently newsworthy and should be aired to viewers.
“In general, those ‘sprays’ which usually turn into press conferences are newsworthy and I would advocate airing them,” one network executive told CNN Business. “This is completely different than taking rallies live which are generally not newsworthy.”
“The only reason we run them on tape is because we can’t always get a live signal out of every room of the White House. Otherwise we would take them live,” the network executive added. “And we air them quickly because the headlines are already coming out on the wires and stories are being written. TV shouldn’t sit and deny our viewers the news that is being tweeted and disseminated widely while we wait and think about it.”
Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief and current director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, did acknowledge that “it could well be newsworthy to see the president unedited.”
“But that doesn’t necessarily need to be tethered to live coverage,” Sesno told CNN Business. “And even if it is, it could be rebroadcast later when networks could have had the time to do fact checks so that when the event is replayed it can be fact checked on screen or through panel discussions so that viewers have context and accuracy as part of the coverage.”
Sesno added, “The White House is not a reality show. It’s not a game. It is not a propaganda platform. It is the place where the most powerful person in the world, accountable to the people, covered by the White House press corps, does his job. It should be treated and covered accordingly. Live cameras don’t go with the territory….And false or misleading information should always be called out.”