The Media Today

Trump shares the State of the Union spotlight

February 5, 2019

As Donald Trump’s political life has worn on, the debate over whether and how to air his words has intensified. During the 2016 campaign, networks would broadcast hours of Trump’s rallies relatively unfiltered; now his every speech meets with calls for a TV boycott or, at the very least, some form of real-time fact-check. In November, after MSNBC declined to carry a fearmongering presidential address on immigration, Erik Wemple, a media blogger at The Washington Post, wrote that “there’s no excuse for any network to take [Trump’s] appearances live, at any time. The question now is: which network will be the first to declare that it will not provide a live airing of next year’s State of the Union address?”

It’s surprising, then, that this debate has been all but absent from the build-up to the State of the Union, which every major network—stepping over Wemple’s gauntlet—will broadcast live from 9pm Eastern tonight. There has been some discussion of how reporters covering the address might go about fact-checking it; in his CNN newsletter last night, for example, Brian Stelter called the SOTU the “Super Bowl of fact-checking.” While Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab and teammates from, PolitiFact, and the Post will play defense—they’ll rate the speech in real-time via an app called FactStream—other outlets’ plans remain unclear. And the general discussion around such efforts has not excited the fevered debate that greeted Trump’s Oval Office address during last month’s partial government shutdown.

ICYMI: Diary of a laid-off reporter

There are logical reasons why that might be the case. Whereas the Oval Office speech was an exceptional response to a crisis of Trump’s own making, the SOTU is a scheduled political set piece. According to Politico’s Anita Kumar and the Times’s Annie Karni and Maggie Haberman, Trump, so often a spontaneous and unorthodox speaker, has taken a remarkably traditional approach to his SOTU addresses, sticking to a teleprompter script practiced ahead of time. It also seems, however, that many in the media have already written off tonight’s speech as predictable and meaningless. Most coverage of the build-up has focused on the blatant contradictions of Trump’s likely message: he’ll plead for bipartisan “comity” but also double down on a border wall—and potential state of emergency—that his opponents, and many of his allies in Congress don’t want.

Rather than focus on the power of his words, coverage in the run-up to the SOTU has focused on the president’s growing powerlessness. As the Times points out this morning, Trump’s path to a wall is narrowing, and he appears to be in an “increasingly precarious position.” And the framing of the speech has responded to Nancy Pelosi’s touch, not Trump’s, ever since she canceled it during the shutdown fight, then pushed it back a week from its scheduled slot. With tonight’s SOTU set to be the first under divided government since 2016, media eyes will be on Pelosi tonight, as much as on Trump. “Visuals matter more than anything else on television,” David Zurawik, a media critic at the Baltimore Sun, told CNN on Sunday. “The image of Nancy Pelosi standing behind [Trump]—over him, literally—with that gavel…  I don’t know how he’s gonna deal with that.” The president might not be pleased, either, that much pre-SOTU chatter has been more about his opponents than him—looking, for example, at Stacey Abrams’s official rebuttal, Bernie Sanders’s unofficial rebuttal, and the guests lawmakers have invited to “troll” Trump.

The SOTU is always, to some extent, about optics and sideshows, and—as is still the case in so many areas of coverage—Trump remains a hot media draw. Nonetheless, tonight’s address should be a reminder that, with Congress divided and the Democrats’ 2020 race heating up, Trump is no longer the undivided center of attention. As the Times’s Haberman and Karni write, “For all of the president’s fabled norm-busting, there are aspects of the conventional presidency that appeal to him, none more so than standing in the hallowed halls of Congress, with all eyes on him speaking to the nation.” Tonight, he’ll have to share that spotlight.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Below, more on Trump and the SOTU:

Other notable stories:

  • More drama in Virginia: Big League Politics, the obscure pro-Trump website that unearthed a racist photo from Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook on Friday, was back in the headlines yesterday—it published a sexual assault allegation against Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s lieutenant governor who would succeed Northam as governor should Northam resign. Fairfax hit back hard, denying wrongdoing and claiming the Post had declined to publish the same story due to its “significant red flags and inconsistencies.” The Post said it had been unable to corroborate the allegation in 2017, but disputed Fairfax’s “red flags” claim. Fairfax aides then accused the Post of a “smear,” before Fairfax himself suggested that Northam supporters may have planted the allegation.
  • Last month, Digital First Media’s bid for Gannett sparked concern across the media industry—as I wrote at the time, Digital First and its hedge fund backer, Alden Global Capital, have earned a reputation for vicious cuts in their newsrooms. Yesterday, Gannett’s board unanimously rejected Digital First’s offer. But the courtship isn’t over yet: Digital First, which already holds a 7.5-percent stake in Gannett, is weighing its options, while Gannett’s chairman has offered a meeting “with no preconditions” on Thursday.
  • Last week, local news chain McClatchy offered voluntary buyouts to 450 of its staff. Among them, the Post’s Wemple reports, was the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg, who is currently the only reporter covering Guantanamo Bay on a full-time basis. While McClatchy insists it will maintain its full-time coverage of Gitmo, “replacing Rosenberg would entail a drop-off in experience on this Byzantine coverage area,” Wemple writes.
  • For CJR, Annie Hylton explores the pressure reporters often feel to pay sources from underprivileged communities. “Most of us in this profession do it so that we can expose injustice and maybe even improve lives; the belief is that reporting can influence the powerful to create humane policies,” Hylton writes. “And yet journalism ethics forbid us to provide direct aid—or influence the story—by sharing our cash with those in need.”
  • Attention, journalists who use Pacer: the 10-cents-a-page access charge may be coming to an end. Nonprofits have mounted a legal challenge over the online database, which provides electronic access to federal court filings, arguing that it is cheap for the judiciary to administer but excessively expensive for users to access. “The suit accuses the judicial system of using the fees it charges as a kind of slush fund, spending the money to buy flat-screen televisions for jurors, to finance a study of the Mississippi court system and to send notices in bankruptcy proceedings,” the Times’s Adam Liptak reports.
  • Yesterday was Facebook’s 15th birthday. For The Atlantic, Alexis C. Madrigal compiled student and faculty reflections of its 2004 launch at Harvard. Today, a late birthday present: Roger McNamee, an early investor turned strident critic of the company, is out with a new book, Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe.
  • In 2009, Heather Nauert, Trump’s pick for UN ambassador, hosted a Fox News webcast pushing conspiracy theories about Sharia law in the US, CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Paul LeBlanc report. Elsewhere, Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA administrator Trump has tapped to go full-time, lashed out at media coverage in three press releases on Friday, including calling an E&E News story “hogwash.” Media Matters’s Lisa Hymas has more.
  • The Post’s pricey fourth-quarter Super Bowl ad, narrated by Tom Hanks, was actually a last-minute stand-in after Jeff Bezos, the paper’s owner, pulled the plug on a commercial for his spaceflight company and needed something to fill the airtime, Page Six’s Emily Smith reports. Over on Galley, CJR’s discussion forum, we debated whether the ad was worth it, regardless of its origin. You can share your perspective here.
  • And for the latest instalment of CJR’s Monday Interview series, Brendan Fitzgerald sat down with Susan Orlean to discuss her long career in longform writing. “Usually I start a story not knowing where it’s going anyway, so I can’t just show up and fire off my ten questions and leave. I don’t have my ten questions yet.”

ICYMI: An early, unsuccessful, attempt at #MeToo in Hollywood

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.