BuzzFeed's Kyle Blaine reported that major news networks are grappling with “internal tensions about the wall-to-wall coverage” of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, according to “more than a dozen reporters, producers, and executives across the major networks.” Moreover, according to Blaine, while some inside the networks are reportedly pushing back against giving Trump free airtime, two other “network sources [have] also confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations.”
Trump has dominated the news cycle for months. A Media Matters report found that Fox News alone has given Trump nearly $30 million in free airtime since the launch of his presidential bid. Broadcast news outlets have received criticism for allowing Trump “unprecedented” access via phone interviews.
Now, according to Blaine, “Staffers at the five major television networks are grappling with what role their organizations may have played in amplifying Donald Trump's successful campaign of insults, generalizations about minority groups, and at times flat lies.” From the March 18 article:
Staffers at the five major television networks are grappling with what role their organizations may have played in amplifying Donald Trump's successful campaign of insults, generalizations about minority groups, and at times flat lies.
Conversations with more than a dozen reporters, producers, and executives across the major networks reveal internal tensions about the wall-to-wall coverage Trump has received and the degree to which the Republican frontrunner has -- or hasn't -- been challenged on their air.
Two network sources also confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations, allowing him to dictate specific details about placement of cameras at his event, to ensure coverage consists primarily of a single shot of his face.
Network officials say the ratings have born out commercial incentives to devote their campaign coverage to largely unfiltered streams of Trump talking. CBS CEO Les Moonves quipped that Trump “may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS, that's all I got to say.”
But many inside the networks are growing increasingly disturbed with what they've helped create.
The symbiotic relationship between television news and Trump began, innocently enough, as summer fling. The cable networks found their answer to the typically slower summer news cycle the moment Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy to a lobby full of onlookers, some of them paid actors.
Producers at several networks said they initially treated his candidacy as a joke, albeit a highly entertaining one.
Trump's rallies became must-see daytime and primetime television on cable, pre-empting regularly scheduled newscasts and driving day-to-day news cycle. Even when he was embroiled in controversy, Trump's availability to the media for interviews, either on camera or by phone, shocked producers accustomed to dealing with difficult-to-book candidates.
As one veteran producer said, “He'll throw a hand grenade in, and then will come on to us to talk about it.”
After several incidents of Trump campaign aides threatening to revoke credentials for reporters who left the fenced-in press pen, representatives from ABC News, CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, and CNN organized a conference call with Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to negotiate access.
According to two sources familiar with the call, the Trump campaign, citing security concerns from Secret Service, dictated to the networks that their camera crews can only shoot Trump head-on from a fenced-in press pen.
Under the Trump campaign's conditions, camera crews would not be able to leave the press pen during Trump's rallies to capture video of audience reactions, known in the industry as “cutaway shots” or “cuts.” Networks would also not be able to use a separate riser set up to get cutaway shots.
The terms, which limit the access journalists have to supporters and protesters while Trump is speaking, are unprecedented, and are more restrictive than those put on the networks by the White House or Hillary Clinton's campaign, which has had Secret Service protection for its duration.
Coverage only intensified as Trump solidified his frontrunner status with victory after victory. Again, his willingness to appear on TV, especially by phone, made him a regular presence on the network morning shows and Sunday political shows. Notably, CBS News is the one news division that does not regularly conduct phone interviews with the candidate.
But as Trump continues his march toward the Republican nomination, the networks are now grappling with reality -- Trump is here to stay, and the coverage has to change.