Read Ross Douthat’s piece about this if you missed it yesterday, if only to complement Jeff Zucker huffing and puffing this afternoon about Fox News and “state-run TV.” Douthat’s point about Trump and cable news is already widely understood and accepted, I think — how could it not be? — but a reminder is useful amid The Great Facebook Panic of ’18. I think it’s a “tell” as to culpability that some of the harshest Trump critics on cable now are people who did the most to help him gain traction as a candidate, especially during the primaries. You can read the last 15 months of “Morning Joe” as a frantic attempt to do penance for promoting Trump as a fresh, thrilling populist phenomenon circa late 2015/early 2016. Joe and Mika won’t flog themselves for their role in Trumpmania so they flog Trump, relentlessly.
Same with CNN, whom Douthat singles out for its stale Team Red/Team Blue panels. Day and night their hosts cluck with indignation at whatever weird thing Trump’s done lately but arguably no network did more to promote The Trump Show during the Republican primaries. Right, granted, Fox News was far more admiring of Trump in its coverage, but Fox is eternally preaching to a right-wing choir. They follow their audience more than they lead it, I think, just as the kings of conservative talk-radio do. If the network has become a personality cult, that’s supply meeting demand.
CNN’s audience is more diverse, yet CNN treated every Trump speech, tweet, and fart as major breaking news. They would cover his plane landing and taking off as news, for cripes sake, and if you doubt me, just check their YouTube account. They turned the Republican primaries into a de facto referendum on Trump, believing, as Douthat says, that “after all Republicans deserved it and Hillary was sure to beat him in the end.” Every time Don Lemon or Anderson Cooper or Chris Cuomo or Jake Tapper shifts into lecture mode, remember that. Like Scarborough, they may be scrambling now to make amends by desperately trying to delegitimize what they helped make legitimate.
Did either network influence more voters than Facebook did? Douthat notes data suggesting that people who used the Internet were *less* likely to support Trump than they were Romney in 2012. It was among non-users, i.e. old people who lots watch of TV, where Trump overperformed. You could plausibly argue, I’m sure, that Facebook mattered to the outcome because some of the margins in swing states were so tight that only a few thousand users would have needed to shift to flip the state. But to even reach the point where Trump was neck and neck with Clinton and capable of being nudged over the line by social media is unimaginable without TV. He’s a creature of the format, from the myth-making of “The Apprentice” to his pre-candidate years of ingratiating himself to Republican voters via softball interviews on “Fox & Friends” to CNN’s and Fox’s transformation into 24/7 Trump TV during the primaries. There is no Trump without television. No wonder he’s an obsessive consumer of it.
And if we’re going to credit a social-media platform for electing him, how is it that it’s Facebook instead of Trump’s platform of choice, Twitter, that’s blamed? Every tweet was (and is) amplified endlessly by newspapers and cable news. Trump used new media to coopt old media — with tweets, though, not Facebook posts. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Democrats are railing against Facebook because Cambridge Analytica’s breaking of the platform’s data-harvesting rules, although highly similar to what Team Obama did in 2012, gives them a new way to call Trump’s election illegitimate. They’ve spent 16 months searching for proof that Trump was elected nefariously, mainly with Russiagate but now with Facebookgate. The system was rigged! And it was, sort of. By CNN and Scarborough, though, at least as much as by Zuckerberg and Alexander Nix.
Really, how do you muster outrage at Facebook for letting an outside party make off with a treasure trove of user data? It’s like being outraged that you got punched in the balls after signing up at PunchMeInTheBalls.com.
But I digress. Here’s one part of Douthat’s piece that rings false:
[Hillary] didn’t beat him, in part because he also exploited the polarization that cable news, in particular, is designed to feed. In 2016 this polarization didn’t just mean that Fox became steadily more pro-Trump as he dispatched his G.O.P. rivals; it also meant that a network like CNN, which thrives on Team Red vs. Team Blue conflict, felt compelled to turn airtime over to Trump surrogates like Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandowski and Kayleigh McEnany because their regular stable of conservative commentators (I was one of them) simply wasn’t pro-Trump enough.
The depth and breadth of Trump skepticism among right-wing pundits was a pretty solid indicator of his unfitness for high office. But especially once he won the nomination this skepticism was often filtered out of cable coverage, because the important thing was to maintain the partisan shouting-match model. This in turn encouraged a sense that this was just a typical right-versus-left election, in which you should vote for Trump if you usually voted for Republicans … and in the end that’s what most G.O.P. voters did.
I’ve heard that theory before, that CNN’s great failing in 2016 was replacing the Trump-skeptic Republican commentariat on panels with out-and-out Trump shills like Lord and McEnany. If they valued the opinions of their pre-election stable of right-wing pundits, they should have stuck with them throughout the campaign instead of adding people who would reliably defend Trump for “balance.” Didn’t viewers already have a sense, though, that “elite” Republican opinion was against Trump? Some Trump-skeptic Republicans were still booked on the panels, certainly more than Hillary-skeptic Democrats were. How influential are the perspectives on a CNN food-fight panel anyway, especially when it was obvious how deep in the tank Lord and McEnany et al. were? Most viewers figured out early on, I assume, that Lord really would have defended Trump if he had taken a dump on his own desk.
One more thing. We’ll call this the “Roman Hruska” objection. Were the Lords and McEnanys added to the panels to ensure that the on-air partisan food fights continued or were they added because, in fact, a large segment of Republican voters wanted on-air mouthpieces who’d defend Trump on everything? You’re not going to get a more thoughtful panel that way but you will get one that more accurately reflects the electorate. Without the “defend at all costs” crowd on the right, Trump never would have survived the final month of “Access Hollywood” tapes and sexual-assault allegations. On Election Day he underperformed Romney only a bit with his own party, winning Republicans 88/8 versus Romney’s split of 93/6 against Obama, which suggests to me that there were many more Lords and McEnanys out there in the booth than there were NeverTrumpers. What should CNN have done about that? If they had blacked out Trump defenders from their panels, the right would have accused them of facilitating debates that were unrepresentative of wider American opinion. And they’d have been right.
Exit invitation: If any data nerds are up for it, I’d be keen to read an analysis of which network, Fox or CNN, did more to push Trump towards victory in 2016. Fox was far more enthusiastic but I’m not sure they were more influential. When the “unbiased” news network is cutting away every day to live coverage of Trump every time he’s within 50 feet of a mic and then letting him ramble as long as he wants, that may do more to shape perceptions of a candidate’s value than the rote backslapping on “Fox & Friends” does.