CNN this evening declined to air live a press conference with the nation’s new White House Press Secretary, pointing to a growing rift between the embryonic Trump administration and the press corps that covers it and undermining the credibility of Sean Spicer, a longtime Republican operative who has become the new spokesman for President Donald Trump.
Producers at the cable-news outlet, owned by Time Warner, this evening decided to see what was said at the press event, according to a person familiar with the network, then play relevant parts as deemed necessary. Despite a robust amount of evidence to the contrary, Spicer during the conference insisted that Trump’s inauguration Friday drew “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.” The statement is a deliberate falsehood: TV ratings data issued Saturday by Nielsen show that fewer people watched Trump’s swearing-in than President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. What’s more, photos of Friday’s crowds showed that a smaller number of people had come out to Washington, D.C.’s Mall to take part. Data from the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority also suggested fewer people were attending the inauguration than in years past.
Spicer chastised the press for reporting the evidence about inauguration attendance accurately, then declined to respond to questions. CNN declined to make executives available for comment.
Trump and CNN have already sparred. During a press conference that took place before the inauguration, Trump labeled CNN as “fake news” after it reported that a synopsis of memos containing allegations against Trump had been included in classified materials presented to both him and former President Barack Obama.
Now, at a time when TV-news outlets have seen their ratings thrive thanks coverage of the colorful and fiery politician, CNN’s decision could be a momentous one: Trump and his representatives have been known to obfuscate and lie. CNN’s refusal to take the live feed suggests executives there are reluctant to put false statements on air, and, what’s more, do not think the new White House press representative is entirely credible. President Trump accused CNN of peddling fake news, and perhaps CNN is now doing the same.
“CNN’s decision to not air the press conference live illustrates a recognition that the role of the press must be different under Trump. When the White House holds press briefings to promote demonstrably false information and refuses to take questions, then press ‘access’ becomes meaningless at best and complicit at worst,” said Danna Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who studies politics and the media. “Democracy works best when journalists have access to the executive branch, of course. But that holds true if and only if that access leads to verifiable, accurate information. The decision on behalf of CNN to wait and verify before airing it live suggests that the media are adapting quickly to this new era.”
To be certain, news outlets routinely make decisions about whether to air press events live, usually based on projections about news value. But this press conference, held just a day after the President’s inauguration, would have been a hot prospect for a cable-news outlet, and could have sparked hours of debate and follow-up on CNN’s schedule. In an unusual and aggressive maneuver, CNN aired its regular weekday lineup this Saturday, underscoring heavy interest in breaking news of a series of massive protests by women across the nation in response to Trump’s presidency as well as the new President’s first few days in office.
CNN has not established a policy about airing White House press conferences live, the person familiar with the matter said, preferring instead to make editorial decisions as circumstances demand. And it was not immediately clear Saturday evening whether its decision might prompt other news outlets to do the same. Spokespersons for CBS News, NBC News and MSNBC were not able to offer an immediate response. ABC News and Fox News Channel declined to make executives available for comment. Several outlets, including CBS News live-streaming CBSN and Fox News Channel, ran the White House press conference live. Broadcast networks typically only break into coverage when White House press events are of immediate national importance, but will play excerpts from the events during various programs.
Across the spectrum, several TV journalists viewed the White House conference with a skeptical eye. During a Saturday broadcast of Fox News Channel’s “The Five,” panelists were heard noting that the Spicer event could not be considered a press conference because the press secretary took no questions. Others were more blunt: “I’ve run out of adjectives,” said Chuck Todd, moderator of NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Twitter.
CNN’s decision may draw its own criticism. In the early days of the presidential campaign, the network came under fire for how much air time it devoted to Trump as candidate – particularly when it aired many hours of Trump speaking at rallies with little comment or editorial filter. “You never knew what he was going to say. You never knew what was going to happen there,” said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, while speaking at Harvard University in October. The CNN chief said at the time that he regretted giving the candidate as much air time as he received.