Saturday, January 19, 2019

US TV networks put ratings over principle
by airing Trump speech

from The Guardian by Emily Bell
Broadcasters criticised for giving president access, as fact checking becomes a media event
[DUMP] Donald Trump’s speech on the Mexican “border crisis”, delivered live from the Oval Office last week, marked a milestone in his brief but historically chaotic presidency; it revealed serious errors of judgment that weren’t simply down to him. Unfortunately for commercial media outlets, it was their shortcomings that attracted almost as much attention and criticism as the scaremongering speech itself.

It is the hallmark of many non-Democratic countries that tinpot dictators appear, at the drop of a hat, on national broadcast outlets. Even in functioning democracies you can measure the importance of a national moment by whether the head of state or government pops up in prime time. For this reason appearances by US presidents on all TV networks were traditionally a relatively rare occurrence. When they do happen, the decision to run them is made on an ad hoc basis by the heads of those networks.

Until Trump, the establishment organisations of US public life – which include the president and the major television stations – were so closely aligned on the circumstances for accessing the airwaves that clear rules seemed unnecessary, at least in the age of media deference to the presidency; Richard Nixon managed nine live addresses to the nation.

The last time an American president requested airtime and was refused was when Barack Obama wanted to address the nation on immigration policy in 2014. The networks’ reasoning included the fact that Obama had been allowed Oval Office addresses before, and this seemed to not be as big a deal.

This time, the danger that Trump would use the platform to spread nonsense and untruth in a thinly veiled campaign for a personal policy was weighed carefully against the fact that Trump had not yet had an Oval Office address and that it would be “newsworthy”, on account of the ongoing impasse over funding the government.

In fact, Trump has already made 17 presidential addresses, but only the latest was given seated behind his desk in the White House. Obama only gave 20 such speeches in the whole of his eight-year tenure.

The policy background is the punishing government shutdown that threatens the wages of 800,000 workers over the insistence by Trump that Congress give him $5.7bn (£4.5bn) to build a border wall with Mexico. The centrepiece of his xenophobic campaign platform, his dream of building the wall, has been stymied by both cost concerns and the laws of physics (large stretches of the US-Mexican border are not wall friendly). His request that public funds be made available to erect a fence – a cheaper, if no less ridiculous, option – has met with Democratic opposition, and ultimately a failure to fund many government activities.

The inability of 11 separate network heads to say “no” to Trump caused frustration on a number of levels. It was yet another sign, said some commentators, of the networks not “getting it”, following the normal rules of engagement with a presidency that is abnormal to the point of dysfunction.

A more nuanced point is that journalists employed by the same networks are often subject to abuse and even physical danger because of Trump’s hostility to the press: CNN correspondent Jim Acosta had his press credentials withdrawn for upsetting the president, and Katy Tur of NBC had to be given secret service protection at Trump rallies during his campaign.

Allowing a president noted for his untruthfulness access to their networks arguably put protocol above national interest, or perhaps, more honestly, prioritised ratings over principle.

Brian Stelter, CNN’s media editor, told the New Yorker he thought the decision was driven by tradition: “It is not that television networks are unaware or uninterested in the president’s mendacity,” he said. “But I think that tradition, that custom, of broadcasting the president simply outweighs the concerns.”

Given the refusal to allow Obama airtime, this argument looks a trifle disingenuous, made more so by the attendant ratings. The speech and an accompanying rebuttal by Democrat leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were seen by more than 43 million viewers. Trump remains strong box office.

The viewing figures are, however, only one aspect of a series of coordinated events. There was the prelude to the speech, in which Trump invited network bosses to lunch and told them he didn’t, in fact, want to be on TV at all, but his advisers were making him. There was the Democratic rebuttal and the subsequent memes. There was the discussion about the speech (see above) and there was the fact checking which has now become a media event in itself.

The assumption that the speech might be false and misleading opened up the opportunity for a fact-checked meta-narrative to run alongside the event. The (non-profit) Associated Press won the prize for worst use of fact checking with a tweet that read: “AP fact check: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump’s demand for $5.7bn for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats’ refusal to approve the money is another.”

In a move that strayed beyond satire, AP then adjusted its own fact check to better conform to the facts.

The Trump Show is a live experiment in what happens when the complete fusion of politics, technology and public entertainment occurs. Journalists and politicians alike struggle to find a footing that keeps them simultaneously relevant and rational. As Trump was sniffing uncomfortably behind his desk on Tuesday, potential contenders for 2020 were popping up on Instagram using the platform’s fleeting Stories function, frolicking with their dogs or having their teeth cleaned.

Meanwhile, on the southern border, where the real policy story is playing out, there was scant coverage of fringe groups harassing asylum seekers sheltered by churches. And the wider story about the growing crisis in processing immigration cases was eclipsed.

This time next year we will be in full-on primary season as part of the run up to the 2020 election, and the era of Trump might be drawing to a close. The television networks and press corps might imagine there will then be a return to normality. But this heightened environment of mediated and unmediated communications is the new reality.

Interaction between politicians, the public and the press has been permanently altered. The fourth wall has come down far faster than the border wall could ever be constructed. As yet it is not entirely clear that the commercial media has decided what role it could – or should – play in this changed world.

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