The sight of President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, throwing off conspiracy theories and hair dye yesterday in TV’s once-humdrum daytime hours, would not too long ago have proven to be catnip that no TV-news outlet could resist. Yesterday, many of them did.
Few if any of the nation’s TV-news outlets aired live Thursday’s press conference from the legal team spearheading the president’s efforts to overturn the election. And Fox News, which did, followed it up with reporting from Kristin Fisher, a White House correspondent, who noted: “Well, that was certainly a colorful news conference from Rudy Giuliani, but it was light on facts. So much of what he said was simply not true or has already been thrown out in court.” Later that evening, primetime host Tucker Carlson told viewers he had invited Sidney Powell, another Trump attorney to appear, but noted “she never sent us any evidence.”
TV news has thrived in the Trump era, thanks to the president’s norm-busting demeanor and viewers’ intense need for information on the harsh effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Fox News, MSNBC and CNN have seen ratings soar. Regular anchors have become household names, winning book deals, podcasts and frothy profiles in Elle, Vogue and the New York Times. Walt Disney even — for a time — restored ABC’s venerable “Nightline” to its original 11:30 spot, delaying the broadcast of Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night program. Now, as the Biden presidency looms, many of the TV outlets are starting to be less deferential to the White House.
President Trump was held to account by Savannah Guthrie in an NBC News town hall leading up to the election. On Election Night, “CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell cautioned viewers in the wee hours of the morning that President Trump was likely to make some remarks about the outcome of the election that had yet to be verified. “We at CBS News are not projecting in this presidential race. We will not disenfranchise the millions of voters in those battleground states and the hundreds of thousands in Georgia who also have not had their votes counted,” she said. Three different NBCUniversal anchors — NBC News’ Guthrie, MSNBC’s Brian Williams and CNBC’s Shepard Smith — broke into Trump’s news conference to tell viewers they were hearing false information. Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto on November 9th cut into a press conference at the White House after White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany made unsubstantiated claims that Trump opponents were “welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Cavuto, taking over the screen. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this.”
It wasn’t always like this. During the run-up to the 2016 election, TV-news networks couldn’t seem to provide enough Trump coverage. Even CNN, for which President Trump appears to reserve a particular disdain, often showed long segments of Trump rallies, or even people waiting for the then-candidate to speak. “We recognized much earlier than most that there was a little bit of a phenomenon, and we recognized there was something going on with him,” said Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, in remarks delivered at Harvard University in 2016. The executive acknowledged CNN may have erred in giving the candidate so much air time.
Attitudes have clearly changed. “During the month of November, television news journalists have revealed that they do see themselves as part of the framework that can protect the stability of American democracy,” says Dannagal Young, an associate professor at the University of Delaware who studies political media. “Cutting away from Trump surrogates when they misinform and denying a platform to political pundits peddling fraudulent claims… these behaviors illustrate that journalists are embracing their role as information gatekeepers. They are refusing to amplify demonstrably false claims that harm the American public.
Cutting away from officials might be risky. A recent survey by Reuters Institute of people in 40 different markets around the world found around half the public prefers statements that are potentially false to be reported prominently, while others favored showing remarks being made in full, then offering fact checking afterward.
Still, after months of being derided by President Trump as “fake” or “the enemy of the people,” the media seems to have realized it doesn’t have to take it anymore.
During Trump’s tenure in the White House, “the media were the outsiders. They were the ones always in the wrong,” says Jason Mollica, a professor at American University’s School of Communication who studies presidential campaigns and messaging. The one outlet that enjoyed regular access to Trump, Fox News, “has come under tremendous fire from the president with them calling Arizona” for Biden on Election Night. That call was verified by other outlets.
Some of these dynamics appear to have resulted in an influx of viewers in recent days for two cable outlets that cater to right-wing viewpoints. Newsmax and OAN operate much smaller businesses than MSNBC, Fox News or CNN, but in the days following the election have benefitted by refusing to acknowledge that Joe Biden is the president-elect and that Trump’s term will come to an end on January 20.
Speculation has swirled for months that Trump and his family might work with one of these outlets to create a news rival that might vie for viewers of Fox News Channel. But Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax, told Variety earlier this week that Newsmax would never become ‘Trump TV,’” noting that, “We have always seen ourselves as an independent news agency, and we want to continue with that mission.” He said he was open to the prospect of giving Trump a weekly TV program.
These two outlets bring in significantly less revenue than their larger competitors. Newsmax is expected to generate $25 million in advertising in 2020 and no affiliate fees, according to Kagan, a market-research firm that is part of S&P Global Intelligence. Meanwhile, OAN is seen capturing $13 million in advertising and $33 million in distribution revenue.
But MSNBC is expected to take in more than $1.1 billion in revenue from advertisers and distributors in 2020, according to Kagan, while CNN is seen capturing $1.72 billion and Fox News is projected to take in nearly $2.98 billion.
Whether the conservative upstarts will be able to grow their business remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the mainstream TV-news outlets seem ready to act like a viewer of one of the later seasons of Trump’s reality-competition series, “The Apprentice,” and change the channel.
“Overall, the media has just had it,” says Mollica.