News outlets that allow Donald Trump to eschew on-camera interviews in favor of phone call-ins are being criticized by television news veterans and media critics who say the format gives Trump an upper hand and can diminish the interview.
Networks have faced criticism over letting Trump call in to shows for months. In September, Huffington Post senior media reporter Michael Calderone explained that thanks to the phone format, Trump “can better control the conversation when he's not facing his interviewer on camera. It's easier for him to speak over the host to change the subject, or to refer to notes.”
The issue returned to the spotlight this week after Trump had been scheduled to do a series of interviews on major morning news shows via satellite, but switched to phone call-ins after he reportedly “didn't like the look of the live shot.”
Several networks allowed Trump to call in, but CBS This Morning declined, citing the show's policy against phone interviews.
Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace has also barred Trump from calling in to his program, but that has not stopped other Fox shows from allowing Trump to stay off camera and on the phone. According to a count by BuzzFeed, television news outlets have interviewed Trump by phone “an unprecedented 69 times in the last 69 days.”
This week, Media Matters launched a petition calling on news networks to stop conducting phone interviews with Trump.
Observers contend that a call-in interview lacks the balance of a face-to-face exchange because the audience and the interviewer are not allowed to see Trump's expressions and reactions. They say it is also more difficult to follow-up and put the subject on the spot to answer questions more directly.
“It's definitely better because you can control it, you can ask follow-up questions,” David Zurawik, media critic with The Baltimore Sun, told Media Matters. “On a phone it really shifts control away from the interviewer, I don't think anyone can dispute that. I was really glad CBS said no, but I think the cable channels are addicted to the ratings.”
David Folkenflik, media reporter for National Public Radio, agreed.
“It is a signal of the extent to which the television cable networks contort themselves to accommodate Trump because he is such an unpredictable and explosive figure,” he said, adding, “The first order is you want to get somebody in person, so the interviewer and person are together. The anchors and the producers control the setting. You want to do it in person, or on camera remote. When things get really dicey is when you can't do that. Television is a visual media, you want to see their facial expressions, it is worth having that. Trump is so expressive.”
Folkenflik and others said many outlets are willing to have Trump on by phone because he gets ratings, but say that is not an excuse.
“They know when Trump comes on ratings spike up. I don't think programmers are too desperate to put John Kasich on a cell phone for an interview,” he said. “They let his rallies and other events be on the air for long stretches of time with minimal interruptions because they just don't know what the guy is going to say. There are other candidates -- there are other candidates in the other party and they are not getting anything like that.”
Marvin Kalb, a long-time former NBC News Washington correspondent and one-time Meet the Press host, praised CBS for declining to let Trump call in and said others should do the same.
“Hooray for CBS,” Kalb said. “The way in which this has emerged, Trump has become his own executive producer in American television. The networks appear obediently to go along with his call.”
“It is television and you want to see things,” he added. “In his case, he is asking for something that is very special, he is changing the rules of the game, you want to ask yourself why? From the network point of view, it ought to be news value.”
In an interview with Media Matters last month about the media's general failure to properly scrutinize Trump, former New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt called foul on the phone interviews, saying, “Broadcasting and cable maybe aren't being as tough as they should be. I have questioned having him on by telephone, it's deferring to him in a way, letting him set ground rules that they don't for others. You do not see his demeanor and it is not the same as having him sit across from an interrogator.”
Frank Sesno, a former CNN White House correspondent and current director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said this week that the limited access is a negative.
“When Trump is on the phone he can talk over the interviewer, he can do it in his pajamas,” Sesno said. “He can get so much free airtime that it starts to challenge us as journalists as to what our role is in providing free media for the candidate.”