Art by Darrel Frost

Bad TV

News networks got Trump wrong in 2016. Can they do any better now?

June 10, 2024

From the moment he rode down that gilded escalator at Trump Tower to announce his 2016 presidential bid, Donald Trump has challenged television media in unprecedented ways. Initially, he seemed like a gift—a reality TV star and tabloid fixture with an almost absurdist approach to campaigning, who would say anything, on any show, at any time. With doubts about the seriousness of his candidacy, reporters treated him like an amusing spectacle—somehow worthy of both deep skepticism and endless hours of coverage. As Chuck Todd, the former host of Meet the Press, once told me, “You’re like, ‘Wait until you see what he’s going to do next.’” I interviewed Todd for Enemies of the People, a 2020 film I directed about Trump’s relationship with the political press. In that documentary, I asked a number of leading journalists and media figures how they made their coverage decisions throughout the 2016 election cycle, and whether they had regrets. 

As it turned out, they had many. Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, regretted laughing, during a roundtable conversation on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, when Keith Ellison, a member of Congress at the time, suggested that Trump might end up leading the Republican ticket. (“I know you don’t believe that,” Stephanopoulos responded.) “It’s really the moment that I will regret more than any during the campaign,” Haberman told me. 

“The 2016 election revealed so many flaws in how journalists had long been covering politics,” Soledad O’Brien said. Clip from Enemies of the People (Retro Report)

Jorge Ramos, the Univision anchor, remembered overlooking Latino viewers who called into his newsroom to say they were planning to vote for Trump. “I was hearing what they were saying, but I wasn’t listening,” he said. CNN’s Jake Tapper said his “biggest mistake” was “relying too much on what experts said in terms of polling.” His boss, Jeff Zucker, said that, in retrospect, he wouldn’t have aired so many of Trump’s lies unchecked while being persistently critical of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Not calling that out more for what it was, and then holding the other side more accountable,” he said, “was probably a mistake.”

And, of course, everyone agreed that the television media simply played far too much into Trump’s politics-as-spectacle agenda—in part because it worked for them, too. As Les Moonves, who was then the chairman of CBS, infamously said at the time, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.… The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” That the networks found Trump entertaining was patently clear. They aired his rallies in full and unmediated, sometimes so eager to get him on the air that it led to the notorious “podium shot”—when cable news outlets would cut away from other candidates’ speeches to a live shot of an empty podium awaiting Trump’s arrival.

Trump received “completely unmediated access” to the homes of millions of Americans, Lydia Polgreen said. Clip from Enemies of the People (Retro Report)

I’ve been thinking a lot about those regrets—so clearly articulated and unambiguous—as I watch the coverage of the 2024 campaign (now with criminal proceedings). This time around reporters aren’t failing to take Trump seriously. But there’s a lot of evidence that the lessons from 2016 did not fully sink in. The coverage of Trump’s criminal trial in Manhattan, for instance, was eerily reminiscent of the empty podiums of 2016. CNN promoted its “gavel to gavel” coverage of the trial, even though no cameras were allowed inside the courtroom. Instead, there was a large photograph of a defiant Trump, scowling in his seat, dominating the center of the screen. In smaller boxes, CNN had a live shot of an empty court hallway; anchors and reporters relayed notes about Trump’s every move: “Trump is shuffling through papers in front of him as the photo is shown on the screen for jurors.” MSNBC and Fox also covered each session of the trial, albeit with more breaks for other news and fewer play-by-plays of paper shuffling.

CNN coverage on May 13, 2024

The networks are not all-in on Trump like they were in 2016, but they still give him a significant amount of unfettered airtime, as CNN did with an ill-advised town hall last year, and CNBC did recently when it let him call in and talk about whatever he wanted, virtually uninterrupted, for forty minutes. It’s not particularly entertaining television, nor particularly good for ratings; what we get feels overcome by numbness and exhaustion. Trump is besieged by so many scandals—and they surface so often—that reporting on it seems like white noise.

That’s in part because the networks are still struggling with how to hold “the other side more accountable,” as Zucker put it, without going overboard. Hence the endless coverage of President Joe Biden’s age. Concern about any presidential candidate’s cognition is legitimate; Biden, the oldest person to be elected president, is no exception. But Biden, who will be eighty-one on Election Day, is barely three years older than Trump, who will be seventy-eight. At one point last fall, the cable networks mentioned Biden’s age nearly four times more than Trump’s, according to Media Matters. The rationale the networks offer for their gerontology is that polls show that people are genuinely concerned about Biden’s age. (The same logic applied to the unceasing coverage of Clinton’s emails.) Of course, polls don’t ask what’s fueling the unease. It’s possible to create anxieties by the way you report on something—ask people enough times if an issue worries them, and they begin to worry. Even Zucker said last November that the “key” for news outlets is “not to get caught up” in early poll results: “That continues to be a huge mistake in the media.” 

Jake Tapper said that his biggest mistake in 2016 “was relying too much on what experts said in terms of polling.” Clip from Enemies of the People (Retro Report)

Some anchors and reporters have grown bolder in calling out Trump’s cruelties and fact-checking him and his surrogates, as Stephanopoulos did when he took on Rep. Nancy Mace in March. During the interview, Stephanopoulos pushed Mace repeatedly on how she could support Trump despite his being found responsible for sexual abuse by a court of law. The conversation grew heated, but Stephanopoulos did not back down. When NBC News hired Ronna McDaniel—the former chair of the Republican National Committee and an enthusiastic Trumper—as a pundit, reporters and anchors at the network quickly and publicly rebelled, forcing executives to reverse course.

But the times when they fall short are still worrisome. It’s the job of journalism to share the realities and stakes of having a candidate who opens his rallies by playing footage of his supporters storming the Capitol on January 6, 2021, while calling them “political prisoners” or “hostages”; or who says he thinks “a lot of people like it” when he talks about being a dictator for a day if he’s reelected; or who declares that undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” It’s not partisan or biased to point out the obvious—that each of those things is disturbing—without drawing a false equivalence in an attempt at artificial balance. In Enemies of the People, I included an interview with Katy Tur in which she referenced George Orwell: “To see what is in front of your nose needs a constant struggle.” It’s a line that came up repeatedly in my conversations back then. There is still time to see clearly now.

Susie Banikarim is an Emmy-winning journalist and recovering media executive. She is the director of the 2020 documentary Enemies of the People: Trump and the Political Press and cohosts the podcast In Retrospect.