It probably won’t surprise you to learn — or perhaps you’ve already noticed — that Fox News Channel host Megyn Kelly refuses to air Donald Trump campaign events live during her prime time show. After all, the Republican presidential front-runner has been throwing rhetorical daggers at her for the last eight months.
But Kelly says her decision has nothing to do with Trump’s insults. She told Katie Couric during a discussion at the Women in the World summit on Wednesday night that it’s a matter of journalistic conscience.
Early July, I think it was, he went down to the Mexican border and did a presser from there, and it was fascinating TV. We put it on, on “The Kelly File” at 9 o’clock, and we watched it, and it was the first sort of like, “I can’t take my eyes off of this. What’s he gonna say next? There is something so compelling about this.”
And we saw our numbers the next day, and they had soared. And then he had another presser not long thereafter, and we said, “Let’s put that on.” It was great television. And again, I was like, “What is this? I’ve never seen anything like this. What’s happening?” And we looked at the numbers the next day, and they soared.
And it was at that point — we were still in July — I said to my executive producers — this was long before the debate; it had nothing to do with any feelings I had to do with Donald Trump — I said to my executive producer, Tom Lowell, I said, “This isn’t right.”
Kelly went on to explain her belief that “it’s not fair” to carry Trump events — captivating as they might be — “because we don’t do that for the other candidates.” Ratings matter, she conceded, “but we also have to worry about our souls and journalism.”
Kelly, who has been at the center of one of the campaign’s most dramatic sagas, just hit on something more important here. Don't get me wrong: Trump’s tirades against her are significant because they highlight his disrespectful treatment of women and his contempt for the fourth estate. But countless other examples prove the same points.
Live broadcasts of Trump rallies and press conferences present a unique dilemma, however. Moreover, the volume of coverage Trump receives, in general, is a common cause of media hand-wringing.
The New York Times’ Upshot blog tallied the presidential candidates’ “free media” last month, using data from a tracking firm called mediaQuant. It found Trump had received $1.9 billion worth, more than twice the total for Hillary Clinton and six times the value for Ted Cruz.
The discrepancies seem alarming, but there is one major caveat:
The mediaQuant model collects positive, neutral and negative media mentions alike. [Paul Senatori, mediaQuant’s chief analytics officer] said negative media mentions are given somewhat less weight.
I’ve criticized similar attempts to tabulate “free media” as misleading because they draw apples-and-oranges comparisons between news coverage and advertising. On some level, any kind of exposure is nice. But so much of the media’s Trump coverage is negative, or at least vetted and contextualized, that it is hardly the same thing as the all-positive spin of a campaign ad.
Major exceptions are rallies and news conferences, which Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have broadcast for long stretches at various times. Giving Trump a platform without a filter is roughly equivalent to giving him free ad time. That's certainly the case with the rallies the news channels have become fond of airing, and unless the journalists asking questions at those news conferences really press him — which is hard when Trump is in charge of the microphone — those can turn into an unfiltered stump speech too.
CNN Washington bureau chief Sam Feist defended the practice during a talk at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy in February, arguing that “taking candidate rallies unedited is actually a valuable service.”
“We can do the commentary afterwards,” he added. “I don’t think we should interrupt them in the middle of it to annotate what they say.”
Feist has a point. Sound bites don’t really convey the mood of an event, and short clips can make voters suspicious that the “dishonest” media Trump constantly derides is taking comments out of context. There is at least some genuine value to showing campaign events as they unfold.
But, as Kelly told Couric, Trump on the stump gets way more airtime than any other candidate. To my knowledge, no one has counted this specific kind of “free media,” but any frequent viewer of cable news can see the imbalance. It's easy eyeballs to air Trump's entertaining rallies live.
Kelly is doing her part to tip the scales a little less.