The new year had barely dawned on Monday morning, but “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough had already had enough.
Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, cohost of the MSNBC political talk show, were midway through a segment about President Trump falsely claiming on Twitter that the coronavirus death toll has been exaggerated, then tweeting that he deserves more credit for his work than he has received.
After a greatly enlarged display of Trump’s first tweet filled the TV screen, followed by the second, Scarborough snapped with a look of disgust on his face: “All right, let’s take the tweet down. Can we just not spread disinformation?”
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s Trump-incited riot at the US Capitol attempting to overturn the results of the presidential election, that is an even more urgent New Year’s resolution for all media outlets — especially cable-news networks like the one Scarborough works for.
Yes, social media platforms at long last moved against Trump. On Thursday he was banned indefinitely on Facebook and Instagram. Twitter locked him out of his account for the first time and removed several of his tweets. But television has a particular obligation to not sustain the power of post-presidential Trump because it did so much to create presidential Trump.
So: Will the networks continue to obsessively report Trump’s every utterance once he leaves the White House on Jan. 20? Or will they finally deny this bully his electronic pulpit once and for all?
Newspapers and click-hungry websites, which have competed fiercely for every tidbit of Trump news, must also marshal their powers of self-restraint, because it’s now clearer than ever that Trump will try to generate chaos and crisis from the sidelines in any way he can during Joe Biden’s presidency, whether to lay the groundwork for another presidential bid or simply because that is the definition of Trump being Trump.
That he can fully leverage his capacity to further batter the nation’s psyche and destabilize democracy only if television enables him to do so by amplifying his lies and conspiracy theories is clearly understood by Tony Schwartz, coauthor with Trump of the 1987 best-seller “Trump: The Art of the Deal.”
Schwartz, who has often been interviewed on television by journalists seeking insights into the president’s temperament and behavior, told CNN anchor John Berman on Monday morning that Trump will use “his Twitter to continue to push these authoritarian lies for the next four years. So unless people like you — and, quite honestly, and me — stop talking about Trump after he leaves the presidency — you have to now, but after he leaves the presidency, that’s his oxygen. And he will continue to breathe in a way that we feel that hot breath on the backs of our neck.”
Exactly. Trump’s ability to disrupt public life when he is out of office, and the level of the threat that he could try to return in four years, will depend in significant part on how much self-discipline the TV networks can muster. Can they conquer their addiction to ratings long enough to act in the best interests of the country? It’s far from certain that they can. The New York Times reported last month that journalists and executives at CNN and MSNBC are “uneasy about the year ahead” without Trump to drive up ratings. But the networks and the rest of the media have a responsibility here that goes beyond viewership, readership, and revenue.
To be clear, I’m not calling for Trump’s First Amendment rights to be abridged. He has the same right to free speech as any other Twitter troll. However, news executives should resolve now that after Jan. 20, Trump’s incendiary comments will mostly be paraphrased on news broadcasts and public affairs programs, rather than blown up and displayed verbatim. Allowing their airwaves to be used as a giant billboard amplifies his message well beyond his diehard Twitter followers.
Moreover, as they make decisions about each day’s political coverage, network producers and reporters must be discriminating about which of Trump’s post-presidential eruptions are and are not newsworthy. If they don’t make that distinction, they’ll be providing him with a steady diet of the publicity he subsists on, no matter how strenuously they try to flag his falsehoods.
And what of that teeming multitude of opinion-for-hire pundits who fan out across the airwaves every day, often weighing in on the news before it’s even finished happening? They should focus their attention on whether Washington is meeting the urgent needs of the nation — you know, those 331 million people, many of them quite unnerved at the moment, whom the federal government ostensibly exists to serve — rather than continue to obsess over one man and his never-ending antics.
What makes a Trump-free scenario far from a sure thing, alas, is that the media generally, and television in particular, are instinctively drawn to drama — and Trump is the political equivalent of sirens in the night. When he hosted Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart used to lampoon the media’s tendency to be easily distracted and chase the latest buzz by swiveling his head, dog-like, and yelping: “Squirrel!” With Trump, there is never any shortage of squirrels.
His relationship with television has always been a classic case of codependency. The political turmoil Trump generates drives up ratings and helps the cable networks fill their daily, 24-hour maw of programming. Trump-friendly Fox News has remained the most-watched cable-news network during his presidency, and, according to a spokeswoman Thursday, just ended its highest-rated year on record. But four years of Trump outrage has also fed a ratings surge at CNN, which “smashed a 40-year viewership record” in November, according to the Times, and MSNBC, which garnered its highest ratings since it was founded 24 years ago. Trump’s presidency has minted new stars such as MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid while making hosts like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes and CNN’s Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo must-see TV for the resistance.
In return for feeding the TV beast, what Trump got in 2015 and 2016 was a level of exposure that conferred legitimacy upon his candidacy. That kind of saturation coverage has continued throughout his presidency for legitimate reasons, but should not outlive it.
It’s telling that when we ponder the careers of other presidents, we tend to think of certain political advisers who were instrumental to their rise — Karl Rove with George W. Bush, say, or David Axelrod with Barack Obama — but with Trump, the key figures hail from television, not politics. It was TV producer Mark Burnett who made him the host of “The Apprentice,” and it was Jeff Zucker, then the head of NBC (and now the president of CNN), who put that “reality” show on the air. Thanks to “The Apprentice,” a real estate developer who’d bumbled his way through multiple bankruptcies and was widely considered a joke in his native New York was able to manufacture an image as a shrewd and decisive business titan.
That is who many Americans thought they were voting for in 2016. In his indispensable book “Audience of One,” New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik noted that prior to their presidencies, Ronald Reagan served as governor of California and Dwight Eisenhower helped win World War II, whereas, by contrast, “Donald Trump became president by winning the 9 p.m. time slot on NBC.”
As both candidate and president, he has gotten lavishly favorable treatment in multiple time slots on Fox News, which has too often acted as Trump’s megaphone. Fox is currently facing stiff competition from the far-right cable channel OAN and the website Newsmax. Once Trump is out of office, will Fox respond to that threat by leaning even harder into the pro-Trump propaganda pushed by its morning and prime-time hosts, or might it demonstrate the kind of independence shown by Chris Wallace? (Probably shouldn’t bet the house on the latter.)
As for CNN, while the network has been tenacious in holding Trump to account during his presidency, it’s also true that it may have helped to put him in the White House in the first place by devoting so much unfiltered airtime to his rallies four years ago — a cautionary tale as CNN weighs his post-presidency. MSNBC’s Scarborough and Brzezinski were criticized in the early days of the 2016 campaign for being overly chummy with Trump, who often called in to “Morning Joe.” In February 2016, Trump said to the duo at the end of an interview: “You guys have been supporters. And I really appreciate it. And not necessarily supporters, but at least believers.”
Scarborough and Brzezinski have subsequently hammered Trump relentlessly, and they denounced him vigorously on Thursday. So did virtually everyone else on television.
But combatting his efforts at disinformation could hinge on saying less about him, not more, in the months and years to come. Television has played the patsy for Donald Trump long enough.