‘Made for TV,’ and where it got us

It’s a cliché as old as Trump-time that the former president’s political style was “made for TV.” During his first campaign, news organizations used those words to describe his rallies, his interviews, and his debate performances; after he took office, they were applied to his faux-suspenseful unveiling of Neil Gorsuch as his first Supreme Court nominee, his early-hours welcome-home ceremony for prisoners freed by North Korea, and a series of boardroom-style roundtables at the White House (at least one of which, confusingly, actually took place “behind closed doors”). A mooted 2018 meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, which ultimately didn’t happen, would have been “made-for-TV”; a 2019 meeting, which did happen there, was. So were Trump’s trade war with China, visit to India, Middle East peace dealings, and killing of the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (he delayed announcing the latter so as to set the agenda for the Sunday shows), and so were his first Oval Office address and last State of the Union address, which doubled as a pitch for “another season.” Last summer, after Trump violently cleared peaceful protesters to do a photo op, CNN decried his “made-for-TV embrace of authoritarianism’s imagery and tools”; after he lost the election, Axios reported that he was planning to counterprogram Joe Biden’s inauguration with a “made-for-TV grand finale” rally in Florida. There was no rally, but he did do a farewell speech before boarding his plane, to “YMCA,” by the Village People. Every major network carried it live.

Yesterday, ahead of the first day of Trump’s second impeachment trial in the Senate, reporters’ TV obsession returned. Politico’s widely-read Playbook email splashed that Trump had privately likened the process to The Apprentice—“He’s compared it to that time in between seasons,” an aide reportedly said, “building anticipation and wonderment for what’s to come”—and there was media speculation as to what, exactly, Trump’s trial-day viewing habits would look like. (Of all the TVs that things are made for, Trump’s has always been the most important.) Numerous outlets reported, meanwhile, that the Democrats prosecuting Trump planned, in making their case, to rely heavily on videos shot on January 6, the day Trump incited a mob of his supporters to stage a coup at the Capitol. The Guardian trailed the prospect of “history’s first made-for-TV impeachment trial.” The press was all set for another optics-obsessed day.

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Then, in the early afternoon, the Democratic impeachment managers rolled their tape, and the mood was instantly drained of any lingering frivolity. They played Trump’s Senate jurors—and the watching public, which was likely the intended audience given the near-certainty that Trump will be acquitted—a thirteen-minute montage of scenes from the insurrection; afterward, one of the managers, Rep. Jamie Raskin, whose son died by suicide just days before the attack, spoke about the further toll the day’s violence exacted on his family. Almost everyone, online and in the room, agreed that it was a highly moving, and devastatingly effective, presentation. “The first day had been set aside for what some anticipated might be a dry constitutional argument,” Dan Balz wrote in the Washington Post. “That debate did provide the backdrop, but the horrors of Jan. 6 became the emotional centerpiece and highlight of the day.” His colleague Greg Sargent wrote that one “wrenching video alone” had made “an utterly damning case against Trump.”

Not that the frivolity was forestalled for long: after the managers wrapped up, Trump’s lawyers took the stage. When Trump was first impeached, in 2019, many commentators remarked on the TV chops of his legal team; its members, led by Alan Dershowitz, had, between them, averaged one Fox appearance a day in the preceding year. The (different) lawyers who represented Trump yesterday, Bruce Castor and David Schoen, were also “made for TV,” albeit of the can’t-look-away car-crash variety. Castor rambled aimlessly, so much so that the pro-Trump channel Newsmax cut away and threw to Dershowitz for comment (“I have no idea what he’s doing,” Dershowitz said, shaking his head); Schoen, for his part, played senators a Hannity-esque supercut of Democrats disparaging Trump, then choked back tears while reciting a poem by Longfellow. Afterward, cable-news talking heads delightedly slammed the lawyers’ performance, and relayed news of Trump’s apparent displeasure. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer graded Castor an “F” (“he definitely flunked”) and Schoen a “D” or a “C.” On MSNBC, Neal Katyal contrasted the day’s presentations—“It’s amazing that there wasn’t a matter/antimatter explosion,” he said—and Lawrence O’Donnell compared Trump’s defense to the legal comedy My Cousin Vinny. (The trial coincided with Joe Pesci’s seventy-eighth birthday, he noted.) Rachel Maddow pushed back. “Mr. Castor would not have made it into that movie,” she said.

Amid all the snark, the insurrection video played by the Democrats continued to drive coverage into the evening; MSNBC’s Chris Hayes broadcast it in its entirety at the top of his show, and other programs ran excerpts. The video, in a sense, played to the rhythms of TV by inverting Trump’s typical formula—it was visceral and attention-grabbing because it channeled a brutal, unvarnished truth, rather than contrived, Wrestlemania-style artifice. (The reaction of Trump’s allies was telling, both of the video’s effectiveness and of their own impulses: Steve Bannon called the video a “made-for-TV fantasy,” which was a compliment; Schoen said the Democrats “probably hired a large movie company” to produce it, which was not.) There’s a lesson here—both for the political reporters who wield shallow optics clichés and the critics who instinctively flinch at them—that judging politics as a TV spectacle is neither inherently meaningful nor inherently trivial: the content, not the style, is what matters. Some of the most compelling analysis of Trump’s presidency—James Poniewozik’s brilliant book, Audience of One, for instance—centrally involves TV. And, as I wrote in 2019, effective public communication is central to the idea of impeachment as a political process.

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As I also wrote back then, the problem lies in the shallowness of what many journalists consider to be good TV. When I was searching this morning for examples of Trump’s “made-for-TV” moments, I also came across stories condemning Trump’s antagonists for failing to match his televisual standards: CNN’s assessment of Robert Mueller’s “halting, monosyllabic” Congressional testimony, for example, and Reuters’s judgment that the first day of Trump’s first impeachment was—“unlike the best reality TV shows”—“consequential but dull.” In these and many other cases, damning stories about Trump were lost to our short attention spans.

In recent days, a mini media narrative has taken hold that Trump’s first impeachment, when compared to his second, was dry or abstract or distant, given its focus on matters in Ukraine. But this is revisionism: at the time, it felt urgent, given that Trump was trying to cheat in an election. Compelling, violent visuals can be brilliant at communicating the truth, but they shouldn’t be necessary to that end. In some sense, the attack on the Capitol was the logical endpoint of a political and media ecosystem that cannot focus—and act—on damning facts unless they’re hyper-stimulating. The insurrection, perhaps, was made by TV, as much as for it.

Below, more on impeachment and Trump:

  • Covering the trial: Trump’s first impeachment trial was marked by tight curbs on reporters: they were crammed into small pens, which they could only leave with an escort, and were banned from interacting informally with senators near the floor. This time, CNN’s Ali Zaslav and Ted Barrett write, there are fewer restrictions—“press pens are much larger and appear to be more of a guideline than a rule, the ropes surrounding the pens have spaces between that reporters can walk in and out of, no escorts are needed and press is able to walk and talk with senators when they see them”—though the pandemic has necessarily limited the number of reporters allowed into the Capitol.
  • Other business: Before the trial yesterday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs met for a confirmation hearing for Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Republicans came armed with mean tweets Tanden posted in the past; she acknowledged that “the last several years have been very polarizing” and apologized “for my language that has contributed to that.” Many on the left also dislike Tanden, in part due to the treatment of ThinkProgress, a progressive news site that was shuttered by the Center for American Progress, the think tank Tanden led, on her watch. Tanden faces a second hearing, in front of the Senate Budget Committee, which is chaired by Bernie Sanders, today.
  • Fox watch: Last week, Smartmatic, a voting-tech company that was smeared by Trump and his propagandists as part of their election lie, sued Fox News, three of its hosts—Lou Dobbs (whose show was subsequently cancelled), Maria Bartiromo, and Jeanine Pirro—and the regular Fox guests Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani for defamation. On Monday, Fox asked a court to dismiss the suit. “When a sitting president and his surrogates claim an election was rigged, the public has a right to know what they are claiming, full stop,” the network argued in a filing. “If those surrogates fabricated evidence or told lies with actual malice, then a defamation action may lie against them, but not against the media that covered their allegations.” In other Fox news, Suzanne Scott, the network’s CEO, has signed a new multiyear contract, putting an end to recent speculation that her job was under threat.

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.