The president wants his party to win the upcoming special election. Not only because that’s what presidents do in general, but because his party has been facing political headwinds that it would be great to try to tamp down. So, one weekend about a year into his presidency, off he goes to the heart of the campaign, appearing at a rally on behalf of his party’s faltering candidate. As he speaks, cable news networks carry it live, every word broadcast to viewers across the country.
On Saturday, the president was Donald Trump and the reaction to carrying his speech was not universal praise. Members of the media were pushed to play defense, arguing that covering Trump’s free-association discussion of all things political (and a few things not really political at all) was part of normal White House coverage.
The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman pushed back on journalist Soledad O’Brien’s criticism of airing the whole rally, noting that live, streaming coverage of Trump’s rallies during the campaign was the focus of a lot of negative feedback. (A rally in Arizona in July 2015 was arguably central to nationalizing his campaign rhetoric.) But, Haberman noted, there’s a difference between the primary and the presidency.
Her colleague Jonathan Martin agreed.
Former Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza defended his new employer’s coverage of the event, too.
Before we address those arguments, let’s return to the point we made at the outset. The entire first paragraph of this article describes not only Trump’s rally Saturday in Moon Township, Pa., but President Barack Obama’s trip to Massachusetts in January 2010 on behalf of Senate candidate Martha Coakley.
Both Fox News and CNN carried the speech in its entirety. Granted, its entirety was much shorter than Trump’s and, granted, Obama made a lot less news than did Trump. But the point remains: Cable news networks airing a president at a campaign rally isn’t new to Trump.
Much also depends on the circumstances. The Obama rally for Coakley and the Trump rally for Rick Saccone’s House race share two traits that set them apart from other campaign rallies. One is that each race is being watched closely nationally. The other is that each rally took place on a slow news day, when covering a rally for 30 minutes or an hour wasn’t eating into much else.
The sample size of special-election rallies at which Obama spoke is obviously fairly small, and, before Obama, it’s quite tricky to figure out what cable news covered and when. But we can look at other events from Obama’s presidency that suggest there isn’t really a set standard.
In July 2010, Obama traveled to Nevada for a speech about the economy that served as a tacit plug for then-Sen. Harry M. Reid, who was in a tough reelection fight. None of the three major cable news networks covered it live. (Fox News pointed people to its website, where the speech was streaming.) It was at noon on a Friday.
In June 2013, Obama went back to Massachusetts for another special election, this one aimed at electing Edward J. Markey to the Senate. MSNBC made reference to the event; neither of the other two networks appears to have covered it. This one was on a Wednesday.
The point raised in the above tweets that the media always covers presidential speeches is true, of course, but “covers” is a spectrum. “Covers” usually means “summarizes and analyzes” more than “airs uninterrupted.” Whether a cable network chooses to air something without interruption is generally a function of two things: how newsy it’s likely to be and if there’s something more important to cover. Trump’s always newsy and, on a Saturday night, there’s not much else to cover.
The standard for live coverage isn’t really “if the president does it, it’s worth carrying.” It’s more, “If the president does it and it’s interesting and there’s nothing more interesting, it’s worth carrying.”
That live coverage of Obama in 2010 didn’t do much for Coakley: She lost in a shocking upset. It didn’t do much for Obama, either. His approval sank into the mid-40s over the first few months of 2010 and, that November, the Democrats were routed in House races.
The last time Trump airdropped into a contentious race was his rally in support of Roy Moore’s Senate bid in Alabama last autumn. That event was carried broadly, too.
Roy Moore is not in the Senate, and Donald Trump is not popular.