Home » News » Trump’s live appearances pose a riddle that news outlets still haven’t solved

By David Bauder, AP Media Writer, published on January 31, 2024

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Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks at a primary election night party in Nashua, N.H., Jan. 23, 2024. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

NEW YORK (AP) — Even as Donald Trump seeks his third straight Republican presidential nomination, his live appearances still present an unsolved riddle for many news outlets: How do you cover him?

The question hung in the air as CNN, MSNBC and some streaming outlets started — then stopped — showing Trump’s speech after the Jan. 23 New Hampshire primary. There was little hand-wringing at Fox News Channel and Newsmax, networks that appeal to Trump supporters. They carried the former president’s remarks in full.

Outlets weigh whether an event’s newsworthiness justifies live coverage when there’s a risk Trump will make false statements that are difficult, if not impossible, to correct in real time — or go completely off script with something entirely unexpected.

And as a year of campaign and courtroom events loom, news executives will face similar decisions again and again.

What are the criteria?

MSNBC pointedly opted out of carrying Trump after the Iowa caucuses a week ago, as Rachel Maddow said, “There is a cost to us as a news organization of knowingly broadcasting untrue things.” But after New Hampshire, MSNBC started showing him, with Maddow noting Trump’s Iowa speech had been mild-mannered by Trump standards.

Only minutes after he began, MSNBC cut out to correct Trump’s misstatements about his past electoral performances and who could vote in New Hampshire.

“We’ll try again,” Maddow said. It didn’t last much longer. As Trump continued to speak, MSNBC spent part of its time on a live interview with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

CNN cut away after Trump began giving his microphone to others, with Jake Tapper reaching back to the 1970s to compare Vivek Ramaswamy to Drew “Bundini” Brown, former trainer and “hype man” for Muhammad Ali. The network also offered fact checks on TV and its website.

Broadcast networks did not offer live New Hampshire coverage. ABC and NBC’s streaming services carried a part of Trump live, then left and corrected some of what Trump had said.

“I heard him reporting some of the 2020 falsehoods that we’ve heard him talk about before,” ABC anchor Linsey Davis said, “but it seems like people are eating it up in the room.”

There was comparatively less at stake when networks began opting out of Trump speeches while he made unfounded accusations of voter fraud following the 2020 election. He was a defeated candidate, soon to leave office, and most ex-presidents fade into irrelevance.

This one didn’t. The stakes are much different now with the increasing likelihood of Trump’s being the 2024 GOP nominee, and journalists faced with the responsibility of giving a potential future president the chance to be heard.

A disastrous town hall event with Trump on CNN last spring reminded everyone in news about the implications of airing his appearances live. Fact-checking on the fly can be extraordinarily hard, and many of Trump’s supporters are more inclined to believe what comes out of the former president’s mouth than what a news organization declares is true.

News executives are generally loath to talk about their decision-making processes, although internal debate within CNN about this topic recently received some attention. It’s sensitive politically, and also difficult to make hard-and-fast rules about.

“I think that we will continue to have these conversations and make the decisions on a case-by-case basis, based on what the event is,” said Mary Hager, executive editor for politics at CBS News.

It’s a healthy discussion to have, but “I don’t know why anyone has to take him live,” said Jonathan Klein, a news consultant and former CNN president, in an interview. Instead, responsible news organizations should monitor what he says and later use material that eliminates or corrects falsehoods, he said.

“I’m not saying don’t air it,” Klein said. “I’m just saying make sure what you air is truthful [and] accurate and that you’re able to offer perspective.”

Not as easy as it might seem

It takes discipline, however. Live coverage of events is the go-to move for cable networks, which thrive on a sense of urgency. Network producers who decide to delay face enormous pressure, particularly if control-room monitors tuned to their competitors show them going live.

Producers need reminders that most viewers don’t watch news coverage with a remote ready to click away just because another network is carrying something live, Klein said.

Networks may face a particularly hard decision if Trump wins the GOP nomination. A party nominee’s convention acceptance speech is a political rite of passage on a summer night, traditionally carried live by broadcast and cable news networks as a campaign kickoff.

Trump has also tested networks by holding live news conferences following court appearances in some of the cases against him, taking advantage of the fact that court proceedings are behind closed doors and he can quickly set a narrative. “Saturday Night Live” opened its show last week with a spoof of one of those news conferences.

Trump and his supporters have also served notice that they’re watching the decisions that networks make.

Fox News’ Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters both did segments on rivals’ decisions not to show Trump’s Iowa speech in full. “Media censors democracy,” was the onscreen message on Watters’ show last week.

“I am worried that the media has a plan, and we saw it play out last night, to just censor this man,” Kayleigh McEnany, former White House press secretary under Trump and now a Fox analyst, said to Hannity the night after the Iowa caucuses in January.

On MSNBC Jan. 24, Trump’s speech received far more attention on “Morning Joe” than it had the night before. After Trump spoke on Tuesday, NBC News reporter Vaughn Hillyard gave a short synopsis on MSNBC.

“So that’s what we missed when we cut away,” said host Lawrence O’Donnell. “Does anyone here regret cutting away?”

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