For the past four years, a debate has raged in media circles over news networks carrying Donald Trump’s speeches live on air. In October 2016, just weeks before Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, CNN president Jeff Zucker admitted that his network may have made a “mistake” by broadcasting “too many of [Trump’s] campaign rallies,” a remark that feels Nostradamus–like given what occurred shortly afterward. “Because you never knew what he would say, there was an attraction to put those on air,” he acknowledged. “Trump delivered on P.R., he delivered on big ratings.” In the aftermath of the 2016 election, some pundits blamed media outlets, in part, for Trump’s surprise victory.
With the country now less than one week out from the 2020 election, mainstream networks like CNN have appeared to learn from what Zucker deemed an unforced error, as most have largely avoided live rally coverage from a president who managed to ride a reported $5 billion in free media right into the Oval Office. Perhaps the networks have responsibly changed course out of civic duty, refusing to give over their airwaves, unfiltered, to a president who has consistently lied to smear opponents and push wild conspiracies. But that’s likely not the only reason why most networks have shied away from the circus: after years of Trump’s unscripted riffs and shit talk on the stump, the novelty and initial shock value wore off. What once felt like a wholly new, gonzo-style of political campaigning—which, performance-wise, lands somewhere between stand-up comedian, megachurch preacher, and local crank ranting at an open city council session—is now a played out, predictable routine.
However, there is one network that, despite hearing all the jokes hundreds of times before, is more than happy to participate in the show night after night, alongside it’s approximately 3.6 million closest friends. “You’ve been watching President Trump in Salem, Wisconsin speaking for almost 42 minutes so far in front of another big crowd,” said Fox News anchor Bret Baier as he closed out his Tuesday night show, adding that his channel also “brought you [Trump’s] speech in Lansing, Michigan live earlier today.” Appearing to sense the backlash he might face for carrying the speech, the network’s “hard news” flagship attempted to justify the programming decision by noting that earlier in the day, Fox had also “brought you live speeches from Joe Biden in both Warm Springs and Atlanta, Georgia and former President [Barack] Obama’s speech in Orlando.” Baier went on to say that such live coverage is “what we do to cover an important election fairly—fair, balanced, and unafraid. We are seven days from Election Night, we promise we are going to cover it fairly and get in the other news around the world.” CNN’s Oliver Darcy, the network’s senior media reporter, dismissed Baier’s carefully worded explanation: “It’s classic bothsidesism. Trump uses air time to brazenly lie and spread misinfo, including about the coronavirus. Obama and Biden do not.”
For Baier, airing Obama’s live speeches along with Trump’s might seem like the most inoffensive way to go about rally coverage in such a contentious election. But the both-sides programming quickly displeased the president. “Fox puts [Obama] on all the time,” Trump ranted to reporters on Tuesday, adding that the coverage decision was “very disappointing.” (Obama, speaking at a Florida event in support of Biden, had jokingly said Trump is “jealous of COVID’s media coverage.”)
Since Trump magically recovered from the potentially deadly COVID-19 virus, reemerging from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with help from a cocktail of steroids and experimental drugs, he quickly returned to the stump. For its part, Fox News greeted the returning campaigner by dedicating hours and hours of live coverage to what could be the president’s final and most bizarre tour yet, as his speeches so far have featured him turning stages into dance floors and threatening to “kiss the guys and the beautiful women” in attendance because “they say I’m immune.” (While Trump may have defeated the coronavirus, many of the reporters, supporters, and campaign and venue staff attending his speeches risk catching the virus, as social distancing and mask requirements have remained lax at the events, a disturbing reality that Fox has turned a blind eye to during its coverage, despite such events defying the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pandemic-mitigation guidelines.)
Lately, the Murdoch–owned network has opted to cut into its original programming in exchange for showing its audience these now daily live performances. Fox has dedicated nine hours and 28 minutes to live coverage of Trump’s rallies between his comeback on October 12 and October 21, “showing at least some portion of Trump’s 12 in-person rallies each day,” according to a report conducted by Media Matters last week. During those dozen campaign stops, five of which Fox carried in their entirety, the network dedicated nearly seven hours of airtime to them on its “hard news” programming, while its hosts picked up the remaining two-and-a-half hours.
After going all-in on Trump’s rallies in the 2016 campaign and during the first year of his presidency, Fox News took a break from its commitment to air all of them just weeks before the 2018 midterm, a decision that reportedly led White House staff to “look into” why the network would divert attention away from its most valuable viewer. But with the presidency up for grabs this time around, Fox News is enjoying record high ratings this month as it once again gives viewers the live Trump show in its most unfiltered form.
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