If you’ve tuned in to Fox News on the wrong night in recent weeks, you’ll see President Trump ad-libbing it before a crowd of approving red-hatters in some boisterous arena. It looks like some random night from the early months of the 2016 campaign — complete with the nonsensical and offensive remarks, the slams on the media and so on.
The debate about airing those rallies is pretty much the same, as well. “I am inside the machine looking out and wondering what the hell we’re all doing,” said Vox.com editor at large Ezra Klein in a chat with Brian Stelter on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.” “So I do want to ask the question. One, what are we crowding out when we give these — when we let him decide what we cover every time he does a rally, right? What are we crowding out? What would have happened in another administration?”
The answer to that last question, as always: something far more normal.
Data from Media Matters — a chief critic of Fox News — reflects an imbalance among the top-three cable-news outlets in live coverage of recent Trump rallies:
Those dollar-value numbers are based on live rally coverage from April 28 through July 5, with Fox News tallying nearly eight hours, MSNBC eight minutes and CNN zero. What an inversion from two years ago: CNN provided so much live coverage of Trump rallies during the presidential campaign that it took heat for tipping the scales in his favor. The prolific live coverage prompted a mea culpa from CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker. “If we made any mistake last year, it’s that we probably did put too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run,” Zucker said at Harvard in fall 2016.
That lesson has quite clearly gotten through to CNN producers, who won’t dare touch these rallies live — though the network, obviously, covers stuff that happens at these gatherings. Fox News has its reasons for the live focus, which the network articulated to the Associated Press: “The president makes news whenever he speaks, and in this nonstop news cycle, there are constant headlines for President Trump to react to.” Before recent rallies, noted Fox News to the AP, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced his retirement, and the president reversed course on the separation of migrant families at the southern border. To broaden the argument, Fox News covers Trump rallies because Trump is the president; what he says matters, even and especially when it’s meandering and repetitious pablum.
For most presidents, such a rationale might just work. In the case of Trump, though, it collapses under the stress of mendacity. The Post’s Fact Checker has observed an intensification of false and misleading claims from the president. As Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star Daniel Dale wrote on June 26: “The frequency of U.S. President Donald Trump’s dishonesty had steadily accelerated since late last year. Then, last week, it skyrocketed.” After just one rally in North Dakota, three PolitiFact researchers spent 1,300 words reviewing eight dubious Trump statements. The New York Times counted 18 inaccurate claims from the Montana rally last week. According to The Post, Trump clocked in with 35 false or misleading claims at a May rally in Nashville.
Poppycock at such a volume is simply too much for live television. It’s impossible to refute all the lies and misstatements as they’re uttered, and no one will stay tuned as anchors and correspondents plow through all the refutations after the fact. For some reason or other though, these considerations don’t appear too troublesome for the prime-time lineup at Fox News.