Photo: SAUL LOEB/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today, Trump’s Oval Office address, the networks’ decision to carry it live, and the Democrats’ response.
When Donald Trump announced that he wanted to address the nation this week, he opened an unusual debate about whether the networks should carry the president’s speech, air it with a delay, incorporate some sort of fact-checking, or not carry the address at all. Did they make the right decision?
The broadcast networks made a scandalously bad call in covering this speech live in prime time. The speech was patently fake news — state propaganda — from the start. The White House signaled early in the day that Trump was not going to declare a national emergency but deliver an eight-minute rehash of his argument for the wall. We learned after the speech was over, via Peter Baker of the Times, that Trump had told network anchors at an off-the-record White House lunch yesterday that he didn’t even want to make the address (or appear in a photo-op stunt at the Mexican border scheduled for tomorrow) and was doing so only because his communications gurus were pushing for it. Yet all the anchors went along with the charade anyway. It says all you need to know about the fallen state of CBS News that the network’s late-night host Stephen Colbert had spoken out against the news division’s cave as soon as it was announced Monday night while its journalists remained silent. (His tweet: “My network will be carrying Trump’s Wall speech live. So at 9pm Tuesday, tune into CBS to See B.S.”) Les Moonves may be gone, but his famous pronouncement about the Trump campaign in early 2016 remains in place: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Why did the broadcast networks carry it? It’s not as if the speech (or, more accurately, speechlet) was unavailable in real time elsewhere. It was aired live on all the cable news networks. Cord-cutters could watch it streamed free on a multitude of news sites and social networks. The only reason the broadcast networks had for airing it were commercial (to feel relevant as brands at a time when viewers are fleeing in droves) and political (to avoid the ire of the Trump base and White House). Had they run onscreen fact-checking as the president spoke (instead of relegating it to the web or playing post-speech catch-up), there at least would have been some added value. But they did not. Given that journalistic derogation of duty, the right thing to do would have been to monitor the speech and break into it live only if Trump committed some actual news — e.g., declaring that threatened “national emergency.” Instead, they allowed Trump to spew the same old same old, only this time with the added boost of an Oval Office backdrop and the implicit network imprimatur that comes with preempting prime-time entertainment programming. In other words, the broadcast networks essentially surrendered their editorial independence to Fox News — literally so in the person of Bill Shine, the former Fox News executive now running White House propaganda.
Trump is not Hitler, the invented “crisis” at the border isn’t the Reichstag fire, and Shine is no Goebbels. But last night’s network-news travesty was in line with the master Third Reich propagandist’s playbook. “When it comes to things that affect the national existence of a people and must therefore be solved by the government,” Goebbels said early on, in 1934, “the job of the press is to just take note. Discussion changes nothing, in any case.”
What will happen next? If Trump understands one thing, it’s television counterprogramming. His speech largely drowned out the real news of yesterday: the revelation that his campaign manager Paul Manafort was feeding private campaign polling to a Putin crony at the time Russia was devising its precisely micro-targeted efforts to suppress the turnout of Clinton voters through social media. We can be certain that Trump will schedule more speeches, more political stunts, and more fictional story lines to counter the cascade of real Trump news in store for 2019: the criminal revelations that will rain down through congressional hearings, the Robert Mueller investigation, and the pursuit of justice by prosecutors in New York. We cannot be certain that the broadcast news networks won’t be played again.
Did anything in Trump’s speech strengthen his argument for the wall, or for a continued government shutdown?
No. Nothing he says about the wall has changed since the last fake “crisis” he rolled out, the now-forgotten caravan of immigrant terrorists (also over-covered by television news), which did nothing to prevent the Democrats from reclaiming 40 House seats in the midterms. In his speech, he didn’t even bother to express any sympathy for the shutdown’s growing roll call of victims. He might as well wear a “I Really Don’t Care. Do U?” jacket during his border visit tomorrow. It would look fine in MAGA red.
Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer used their rebuttal largely to isolate Trump, at a time when Americans are increasingly blaming him for the shutdown. Will this exchange help end the shutdown, or prolong it?
Pelosi and Schumer also repeated their same case for how to go forward, a strong one. I agreed with every word. But as always, I’m amazed that the Democrats, with all their ties to Hollywood, are so often inept at television. The visual image of the two leaders sharing a narrow podium was accurately described by James Poniewozik, the Times television critic, as “looking unfortunately like a cross between Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ and the twins from The Shining.” Not that it mattered anyway. The audience for them and for Trump were their parties’ bases, and it’s hard to imagine any minds were changed on either side.
The shutdown will end only when more Senate Republicans defect in the face of more polls confirming that there’s no public clamor beyond Trump’s base for a wall and that the GOP is being blamed by voters for the shutdown. The defections continue (Lisa Murkowski, most recently). The White House is trying to counter any revolt by playing whack-a-mole to counter shutdown-caused hardships — ruling (with questionable legality), for instance, that tax refunds can be paid out. But not knowing how government works, and apparently under the misapprehension that all furloughed workers are Democrats in the D.C. area, this administration has neither the raw information nor the bureaucratic cunning to stop the accelerating bleeding. The chaos is rapidly extending to airport security lines, life-and-death actions by the Food and Drug Administration, and the already overstretched Secret Service.
The one wild card Trump has yet to play — that legally precarious declaration of a national emergency — is unlikely to fly with his own party. That such a presidential usurpation of congressional power is ideologically in conflict with Republican orthodoxy is not really the issue; the GOP has abandoned almost every other principle in surrendering to Trump. The real problem would be that it would mean paying for the wall by robbing money from the Department of Defense (and pet local projects favored by congressional Republicans). Not to mention that it would mean using eminent domain to seize property from voters along the border in red states.
Nothing has changed since New Year’s. Pelosi holds all the cards and she is a master at playing them. When Trump surrenders, he’ll call defeat a victory, and move on to the next stunt designed to fend off the true crisis, the hounds of justice closing in not just on his presidency, but on him, his son, his son-in-law, and every other member of his crime syndicate in and outside the White House.