Phoning It In And The Media's Trump Surrender

Tuesday offered a sad but telling snapshot from the Donald Trump campaign trail, capturing how the Republican seems to intimidate the press and how journalists too often bend to his will.  

Tuesday morning, Trump was scheduled to appear live on several morning programs, via satellites from his home in Florida. But after Trump reportedly didn't like the way his remote shots looked on television, he canceled the satellite Q&A's and simply phoned in his interviews live.

That evening, after winning primaries in Mississippi and Michigan, Trump spoke for more than 40 minutes. His rambling address included a weird pitch for his brand of products (steaks, wines, vodka), many of which he didn't actually own. The all-news cable channels carried Trump's performance in its entirety and refused to break away even for a minute to cover any of Hillary Clinton's primetime address, celebrating her Mississippi victory.

As Trump was leaving his televised address, his campaign manager reportedly grabbed the arm of a Breitbart News reporter who was trying to ask the candidate a question. The reporter, Michelle Fields, was nearly pulled to the ground after being forcibly grabbed. “Fields was clearly roughed up by the move,” a witness told Politico. The Daily Beast reported the encounter left her bruised.

So yes, the day featured all the discouraging telltale signs of the media's Trump mess. The press allowed him to play by new, call-in rules? Check. The press showered Trump with an unprecedented amount of free, uninterrupted airtime? Check. Members of the press were physically insulted or physically manhandled by Trump and his handlers? Check.

If this Trump vs. the press battle were an actual fight, the referee would've stopped it a long, long time ago. Indeed, rather than a bout it's more like Trump stands in his corner, tapes up his gloves, and the press throws in the towel before the first bell is even rung. And yes, to suggest Trump enjoys pushing the press around would be an understatement.

“He's getting by with a lot of stuff that no candidate should get by with,” according to Walter Mears, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Associated Press campaign reporter.

But it works for Trump. It definitely works.  

That said, note that Tuesday also included an unexpected sliver of media pushback: CBS This Morning stood alone in refusing to allow Trump to replace his scheduled on-camera interview with a phone-in chat. The program cited its longstanding rule against allowing guests to call in.

For most of the campaign, Trump has been awarded the special privilege of calling into programs. Many observers think phone-ins are beneficial to politicians since it's easier for them to talk over journalists and harder to be pinned down. (Phoners generally preclude the use of on-screen graphics as a tool to confront candidates and get detailed responses.)

“Broadcasting and cable maybe aren't being as tough as they should be. I have questioned having [Trump] on by telephone, it's deferring to him in a way, letting him set ground rules that they don't for others,” former New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt recently told Media Matters. “You do not see his demeanor and it is not the same as having him sit across from an interrogator.”

Between March 1-8, Trump did 17 live interviews with ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. More than half of them were phoned in.

So why did television producers last year invent the running exception for Trump's phone-ins; the exception that most shows used on Tuesday for him?

“I think there's enormous interest in Donald Trump as a candidate,” Mary Hager, executive producer of CBS's Face the Nation, told the Huffington Post last year. “I think if he is only available for a phone interview, we need to be able to help our viewers out in understanding him.” She added, “It's the Sunday shows responsibility to cover the news.”

Right, but as one veteran TV news pro in the same Huffington Post article pointed out, while front-runners have in the past been able to negotiate the formats of interviews, letting guests phone in for non-breaking news stories is “unprecedented.” So why is it suddenly the media's “responsibility” to rewrite the rules for Trump? Hager's answer last year indicated it was because Trump was wildly popular; because there's “enormous interest.”

Note that Hillary Clinton has accumulated more votes this year than Trump, and according to some recent polls she would easily defeat him in November. (Trump's among the most disliked politicians in America today.) So again, why the special media rules for the guy who might lose badly in the general election?

On Tuesday, when Trump walked away from his on-camera interviews while claiming his campaign was having technical difficulties with the satellite feed, television sources told CNN's Brian Stelter that they thought Trump was using a hollow excuse. Yet the candidate, who's treated like a ratings wonder by news channels, was still given a green light by most of the networks to simply call in.

Why are the phone interviews a big deal? They represent one of the first tangible campaign examples of the press acquiescing to Trump, beginning last summer; making it clear that news executives had no reservations about applying special standards to him. But as CBS This Morning showed this week, the phoners also represent a very simple way for the press to push back. They're probably the easiest and quickest fix the media could make in an effort to recalibrate its lost leverage with Trump.

Just don't do it. It's really that simple.