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How the cable networks covered Trump

Former president Donald Trump, seen on the viewfinder of a video camera, announces his run for president on Tuesday. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post)

Tuesday night posed an unusual test for American media: How to cover the long-expected (and therefore less newsworthy) announcement of a presidential bid by a former president renowned for his dishonesty? Oh, and who, instead of accepting the defeat that led to his removal from office, fought it to the point of stoking a violent uprising against Congress?

For the print and online press, the question was easier to answer. The nature of the medium was such that the claims made by Donald Trump in his hour-plus-long speech could be challenged and contextualized — as could the unique nature of Trump’s candidacy.

But for television and radio, the calculus was slightly different. Do you air this unquestionably important moment as you might an announcement from any other candidate leading in the polls during any other year? Or do you instead treat it as the exception that it unquestionably is?

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The Internet Archive captures feeds from major cable networks 24 hours a day, including the three most watched news channels on American cable. Kalev Leetaru of the GDELT Project took those feeds and extracted stills from each channel’s coverage, one per minute. The result is a visual depiction of how the networks — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — chose to present Trump’s announcement speech.

Trump was scheduled to begin speaking at 9 p.m. but started a few minutes late. Fox News was already carrying the feed live as Trump entered the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago where the announcement was made. This came during Sean Hannity’s show; given that Hannity is a longtime friend and supporter of Trump, that he ran with the speech is not a surprise.

You can see each of the first 15 minutes of the 9 p.m. hour on each channel below. Minutes shaded as purple are ones in which the channel was discussing Trump or his announcement. Sometimes that was with an inset of the room at Mar-a-Lago.

In the early part of the hour, both CNN and Fox News aired the speech live. MSNBC didn’t.

After the first 15 minutes, MSNBC cut to commercial. A few minutes later, CNN broke out of the live feed and began a panel discussion, airing Trump still speaking on the side of the screen.

Fox News pressed on with the full speech.

By the second half of the hour, MSNBC had switched to an interview with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). CNN continued with its panel for a few minutes, before shifting over to reporter Daniel Dale, who has spent years fact-checking Trump’s claims. Surprise: He found that Trump had said many things that weren’t true.

Finally, after nearly 40 minutes, Fox News also cut away from the speech to get reactions — heavily from Trump allies.

One interesting aspect of the timing of Fox News’s breaking away from the speech is that Trump had already gone over the expected duration of his comments. As is the norm for one of his speeches, his recitation of the speech offered on the teleprompter was interrupted repeatedly with asides and tangents somewhat at odds with the structure of the scripted speech. Those asides made up more of the content of the speech as the speech ground on.

By cutting away, then, Fox’s commentators were able to describe Trump’s comments as tailored and constrained in a way that airing more of the speech live would severely undercut. Hannity did go back to the speech for the tail end of his hour.

Both CNN and MSNBC, meanwhile, interspersed ads with coverage of Trump’s announcement and other breaking news.

Finally, a few minutes after 10 p.m., Trump was done. Fox News host Laura Ingraham — not as close with Trump as Hannity — showed a brief segment of the speech before bringing in her own panel. CNN continued with analysis, largely centered on Trump’s speech. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell covered the speech, too — through the lens of criminal probes targeting the former president.

What viewers learned about the announcement, then, depended on what network they watched. On Fox News, they mostly got to hear directly from Trump himself, save some extended interludes in which Trump’s commentary was broadly praised. On CNN, there was a bit of Trump making his own case before third-party observers weighed in on the speech and its contents. Over at MSNBC, there was very little Trump at all.

Editorial decisions reflecting each network’s approach to the news.

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