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Trump, long a creature of the media, shuns the TV spotlight

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Donald Trump.James Robinson

There was a time when Donald Trump couldn't resist a good TV hit in the morning.

Back in August 2015, for example, the self-described "ratings machine" called in to the major Sunday news shows on ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN — all in one morning — to defend himself from the backlash he was facing after saying that Megyn Kelly, who had moderated a Republican debate, had "blood coming out of her wherever."

That was then.

Now, five weeks before the presidential election, Trump has largely divorced himself from the powerful symbiotic relationship with the media that helped usher him to the cusp of the White House.


The once-freewheeling Republican nominee has not held a press conference since July 27, launching the same countdown clock that once dogged Hillary Clinton, whose last press conference was Sept. 8.

Trump has also backed away from his favored medium, the TV news circuit. Since appearing on NBC's "Commander-in-Chief Forum" with Matt Lauer on Sept. 7, he has given seven interviews to Fox News, but has not appeared on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, or MSNBC, according to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters.

Political observers attribute Trump's major media withdrawal to the discipline that his relatively new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, is seeking to impose on the unruly candidate.

Many point to Trump's fight with the family of a fallen Muslim Army captain as the turning point that led to his retreat to the friendlier confines of Fox News, the network formerly led by Roger Ailes, who has recently advised the Trump campaign.

It is typical for presidential candidates, fearful of committing gaffes or being knocked off message, to cut back on the number of unpredictable media interviews they agree to as Election Day approaches.


But for Trump — a creature of the media from his tabloid days in the 1980s to his decadelong run as host of "The Apprentice" — the strategy requires him to abandon the bucking TV bronco that he has happily ridden to fame over the last several decades.

"The fact is, he was just in the air, everywhere, and I think the people who liked him, they liked that," said Bob Schieffer, who retired last year as host of "Face the Nation" after 46 years at CBS. "When he would bark back during these interviews, that rang a bell for them. He was getting all this exposure and I think that's how he got the nomination."

No one is quite sure what the end of that media coziness will mean for Trump.

He is, after all, such a voracious consumer of cable news that he once called in to the CNN control room to alert the network to an interview that Fox News had just aired of his former girlfriend, rebutting a New York Times story about his relationship with women.

"His natural tendency is to be out there and everywhere," said Joshua M. Scacco, a professor of media theory and politics at Purdue University. "The trend away from that in the last couple of weeks is his advisers trying to reel that in. They're better about keeping the campaign on message than Donald Trump is."


Still, Scacco said, Trump is taking a risk by jettisoning the TV world that helped him create his unorthodox brand of tell-it-like-it-is braggadocio.

"The bubble this creates could counteract his authenticity," he said. "He is offering himself to the American public as the authentic candidate as opposed to Hillary Clinton and, by being scripted, he cuts across that image."

Observers also trace Trump's shift to a change in the TV media's attitude toward Trump as he evolved from a reality-show long shot into a credible candidate for president.

Even local TV outlets, which he has agreed to speak to, have been pressing him on his record, rather than simply asking, "What brings you to Bedford today?"

After his rally in New Hampshire on Thursday, for example, an NH1-TV reporter challenged Trump on his stoking of the bogus theory that President Obama was not born in the United States and his threat to bring up Bill Clinton's marital history during the next debate.

"The media has changed from treating him as an entertaining sideshow to someone who could hold the most powerful political office in the world," said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist. "That's an appropriate shift, but it's changed the content and tone of Trump's interactions with reporters."

At his rally on Saturday in Pennsylvania, Trump groused that Clinton is "being totally protected by The New York Times and The Washington Post and all of the media," including the "dopes at CNN."


Given the tougher questioning, some Trump supporters say they don't blame the candidate for trying to shun the press.

"It's rather simple: at a certain point, when someone is putting a shiv in your back, you stop going there," said Roger L. Simon, the former chief executive of PJ Media, a conservative news and opinion site.

Initially, he said, the mainstream media, "just thought of Trump as entertainment, eye-rolling entertainment. But then poll numbers showed he could win, and they started to pull out the knives."

Still, staying on message has not been easy for Trump as long as he has access to his Twitter account. On Friday, for example, he escalated his fight with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, tweeting that she was "disgusting" and "a con."

"I think it's a constant struggle for senior staff on that campaign to keep him in check," said Eric Fehrnstrom, a former senior adviser to Mitt Romney.

Still, Fehrnstrom said, the decision to limit Trump's media appearances has helped the campaign by decreasing the opportunities Trump has to lob the insults and personal attacks for which he is famous.

"He was more freewheeling in the primary, but he could afford to do that," Fehrnstrom said. "It was to his benefit to do that. But he doesn't have to compete for coverage now. He walks out of his hotel and gets coverage."

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment. But Conway has defended Trump's withdrawal from the media world that was once at his command.


"He gives press availability every day by doing these rallies, in these swing states, where he is every single day," and Trump's traveling press corps is "there with him," Conway said on CNN last month. She did not mention that Trump doesn't take questions at these events from the press, who are kept in a pen.

The rallies are public, Conway said, "and the press is right there to cover everything."

Michael Levenson can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.