The Media Today

Did the networks get played by Trump’s address? Either way, they failed.

January 9, 2019
Photographer: Carlos Barria/Pool via Bloomberg

Donald Trump’s first Oval Office address to the nation last night was, as many predicted in advance, driven by false and misleading claims. It was also, as many predicted in advance, dull and repetitious. The president did not declare a national emergency; rather, he cycled through his deck of familiar anti-immigration talking points, doubled down on his border-wall plans, and moved the needle not a jot on his deadlocked negotiations with congressional Democrats. As Adam Sneed, an editor at CityLab, tweeted, the address was “The national political equivalent of a meeting that could’ve been an email.”

Commentators who argued that the networks shouldn’t carry the address in the first place claimed its anticlimactic nature vindicated them. “The networks interrupted their entertainment fare for the lamest rerun on national television: Trump’s immigration talking points,” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple tweeted. “Shame on you, networks,” CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis added, “Shame on you.” And Pod Save America’s Dan Pfeiffer channeled many on the left when he said, “The networks got played.” Proponents of airing, including network bosses, don’t agree—the decision to go live, as the Post’s Sarah Ellison and Paul Farhi report, was less a bet on the likely content of the speech than a reflection of its newsworthy timing on the 18th day of a partial government shutdown. As with its message on immigration, when it comes to the debate over airing Trump’s lies, it’s unlikely the address changed too many minds last night.

ICYMI: Trump’s lies will be televised. Networks should fact-check them.

I wrote yesterday that, with that debate ongoing, the focus should turn to networks’ plans to handle Trump’s words. Not a single one CJR’s staff saw offered an on-screen fact check in real time last night. Anchors and pundits did wrap reality around the address. Beforehand, for example, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow fact-checked—and logic-checked—the president’s typical immigration rhetoric, separating it into falsehoods that would make sense if they were true and falsehoods that would not. After the address, CNN, whose panel included Toronto Star fact-checking maven Daniel Dale, ran chyrons contrasting Trump’s statements and the facts under the typical punditry. And CNN, CBS, and others ran live analysis on their websites. That’s all better than nothing. But more of an effort could have been made to put the truth right up on screen as Trump defied it. Doing so would have caught floating viewers who hopped over for the address, and disrupted the flow of the narrative Trump built from false premises. And it would have been perfectly doable given how predictable and pat Trump’s lines were.

Nor was the fact-checking that did happen universally successful. The best way to rebut a lie remains open to debate. But the “Trump:… Fact:…” formula used by CNN, for example, is unduly balanced; it would be better to start the sentence “Trump misstated that…” or simply to state the truth without repeating the lie at all. In its real-time online fact-check last night, the Post’s team tried both those formulations in prominent subheadings such as “The trade deal does not pay for the wall” and “Most imported heroin comes through legal points of entry.” BuzzFeed went further still: rather than react to Trump’s claims, it selected and posted its own stream of facts about the border. Much of what we saw from the networks was less compelling: ABC’s on-air walking tour of its fact-checking department was, my colleague commented, “bad television.”

After Trump delivered his dud, Bill Carter, an analyst for CNN and former Times reporter, tweeted that networks would be wise to learn a lesson from last night; Carter suggests they should tell the White House, “That was a fraudulent request; forget asking for platform for your political posturing ever again.” Networks obviously aren’t going to take that advice. If that means they’ll have plenty more opportunities to try something different going forward, last night was not an encouraging sign of change.

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Below, more on Trump’s address:

  • Did Trump get played? Part I: In an off-the-record lunch with television anchors yesterday, Trump made the extraordinary admission that he thought his address and subsequent visit to Texas (slated for tomorrow) would be a waste of time, the Times’s Peter Baker reports. “The trip was merely a photo opportunity, he said. ‘But,’ he added, gesturing at his communications aides Bill Shine, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway, ‘these people behind you say it’s worth it.’”
  • Did Trump get played? Part II: In the run-up to his address, Trump leaned heavily on the advice of hardline Fox News boosters Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng, Spencer Ackerman, Lachlan Markay, and Maxwell Tani report. Hannity was busy spinning Trump’s address on Fox last night, repeatedly emphasizing deaths allegedly caused by undocumented immigrants.
  • Did viewers get played? Times TV critic James Poniewozik says viewers paid the price for the prime-time wall debate. “What there was not, after two days of media drama, was a convincing argument for why this needed to be a prime-time event at all,” Poniewozik writes. “There was no news. There was no new argument. There was just a wall of sound, and the American viewing audience paid for it.”
  • Did Manafort get played? After lawyers for Paul Manafort neglected to redact a damning court filing, journalists found out yesterday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller suspects Manafort of sharing polling data with Konstantin Kilimnik, a business associate tied to Russian intelligence, during the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s address shunted the story from the spotlight somewhat, though some network anchors and pundits tied it back into coverage of his speech.
  • Did Chuck and Nancy get played? The AP and the Times also fact-checked the rebuttal by Democratic congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, which networks also carried live. The AP notably tempered the Democrats’ claim that Trump is at fault for this shutdown: “Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another.”

Other notable stories:

  • Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, has eight tips for reporters covering the 2020 presidential race, which swung into gear with Elizabeth Warren’s New Year’s Eve declaration. Among other things, Pope says, journalists should ignore atmospherics, make policy come alive, throw out their crystal balls, and end the industry “group hug.”
  • Pelin Ünker, a Turkish journalist who worked on ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation into offshore financial structures, has been sentenced to 13 months in prison for her reporting on the package, ICIJ’s Fergus Shiel writes. A judge ruled that Ünker’s story for Cumhuriyet, about the Malta-based companies of Turkey’s former prime minister, Binali Yildirim, and two of his sons, was defamatory and insulting. ICIJ condemned the verdict.
  • Mark Zuckerberg yesterday announced his New Year’s resolution to hold more public discussions around the societal issues facing tech (here’s hoping it doesn’t go the same way as his 2018 resolution to fix Facebook). Users who resolved to delete the Facebook app in 2019 might find that they can’t, at least if they own a Samsung phone, Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier reports. And for CJR, Mathew Ingram writes that Facebook and other digital services should be concerned by a lawsuit, currently working its way through New York courts, seeking to hold Grindr, a hook-up app for gay men, accountable for the predatory behavior of a user.
  • In Germany, a 20-year-old exploited weak passwords, such as “1234,” to hack Chancellor Angela Merkel and other public figures—and went a month without detection, the Times’s Melissa Eddy reports.
  • T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, which can then be resold into shady hands, Motherboard’s Joseph Cox reports. “Motherboard’s investigation shows just how exposed mobile networks and the data they generate are, leaving them open to surveillance by ordinary citizens, stalkers, and criminals, and comes as media and policy makers are paying more attention than ever to how location and other sensitive data is collected and sold,” Cox writes.
  • And CJR published an excerpt of technology researcher An Xiao Mina’s book, Memes to Movements: How the World’s Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power. The excerpt focuses on how Chinese citizens went online to combat official censorship and misinformation around Beijing’s heavy pollution problem.

ICYMI: How Der Spiegel was deceived by a fabulist

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.