As scrutiny has mounted against cable and network news programs regularly allowing Donald Trump to call in to their broadcasts, rather than appearing in person or by satellite, several journalists have said they will no longer allow him that privilege. Others have called for an end to the “shocking” special treatment across all networks and pointed out the ways the practice gives Trump a strategic “advantage.”
Trump and The Media Have A Mutually Beneficial Relationship
NY Times: Trump And News Media Have A Symbiotic Relationship. In a March 20 article, The New York Times' Jim Rutenberg outlined the mutually dependent relationship between the news media and Donald Trump, with the GOP front-runner drawing readers and viewers to outlets, and the outlets responding with more coverage. He noted that many TV outlets have even allowed Trump to call in for interviews, rather than following the past method of requiring candidates to appear in person or by satellite, “without aides slipping them notes, their facial reactions and body language on full display” :
Mr. Trump riled up his fans against a recurring villain in his running campaign narrative and ensured the news was once again all about him. Fox News, the cable news ratings leader that is so often impugned as an arm of the Republican Party, got to ring a bell for journalistic independence. Ms. [Megyn] Kelly got the sort of support from the network that she has described as lacking from her colleague Bill O'Reilly; guaranteed big ratings to come; and got more fodder for the book she sold for many millions of dollars after the Trump feud began.
Newspapers and online news organizations got a click-worthy story line tailor-made for a fast read on the iPhone. And, finally, there were the viewers and the readers, who are benefiting from a transitioning media industry's desire to give them what they want, where they want it, as fast as possible. As the people have made clear, they want Trump.
It was the perfect boil-down of the disturbing symbiosis between Mr. Trump and the news media. There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years. But in my lifetime it's never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.
Of course, the situation is unique because Mr. Trump is unique. His pedigree, his demagoguery and his inscrutable platform -- including the proposed mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants -- make him a giant story.
Then there are the Sunday morning public affairs programs. For decades they have served as proving grounds where candidates must show up on camera, ideally in person, to handle questions without aides slipping them notes, their facial reactions and body language on full display. It's why the programs were named “Face the Nation” and “Meet the Press” -- not “Call the Nation” or “Phone the Press.”
And yet, as the campaign began in earnest, all of the shows went along with Mr. Trump's insistence that he “appear” by phone -- all except one, “Fox News Sunday With Chris Wallace.” [The New York Times, 3/20/16]
Media Matters: “It's Time To Take Away Trump's Special Privilege.” Media Matters created a petition that calls on news networks to stop giving Trump the “extraordinary advantage of calling in to your news programs.” An accompanying statement says:
The news media has given Donald Trump a special phone privilege, allowing him to call in to shows instead of forcing him to appear via satellite or in studio. As a result of this privilege, Trump can appear on more shows, and he can avoid being confronted by images and demonstrations showing his lies for what they are.
It's time for it to stop. CBS refused to let Donald Trump call into its morning show. This is a start, but other networks and other shows are still letting Trump call in. Sign our petition, and tell news networks that it's time to take away Trump's special privilege. [Media Matters, accessed 3/29/16]
MomsRising.org: Stop Granting Trump Special Phone Privileges. Noting that his “call-in option allows Trump to blanket the airwaves with his message day in and day out,” the women's advocacy group MomsRising.org is circulating a petition that states:
We, the undersigned voters and viewers, are very concerned to learn that some media outlets have been allowing Presidential candidate Donald Trump, and only Donald Trump, the option to call into television shows, rather than appear in person.
Other candidates have been denied this option, which is unfair and undemocratic.
We urge you to act immediately to apply a fair and consistent call-in interview policy for all Presidential candidates. [MomsRising.org, accessed 3/29/16]
Criticism Mounts of Trump's Phone Privileges While Some Shows Ban The Call-Ins
Knight-Ridder's Clark Hoyt: Interviewing Trump By Phone Is “Deferring To Him,” “Letting Him Set Ground Rules That They Don't For Others.” Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Clark Hoyt told Media Matters that he has “questioned having [Trump] on by telephone” because it's “deferring to him in a way, letting him set the ground rules” :
“Everybody recognizes that Trump is not putting forward specific policies,” said Clark Hoyt, who covered campaigns for Knight-Ridder from 1968 to 1976 and later served as its Washington bureau chief. “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.”
Hoyt, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his reporting on Democratic vice presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton's past struggles with depression, said the simple lack of probing questions when Trump is on air is very problematic.
“I don't fault people for having him on -- the question is, what are the questions? How tough are they? What is the follow-up?” Hoyt said. “Forcing him to answer in greater detail than he has so far. Questions about how he would pay for a wall, what his real health care plan is, so on. I have never seen anything like it, the lack of facts, and he continues espousing his way on through.” [Media Matters, 3/3/16]
Walter Shapiro: Media's Permissive Treatment Of Trump, Including Letting Him Call In, Is “Shocking.” Veteran political reporter Walter Shapiro told Media Matters that the media's “fawning” “overcoverage” of Trump -- including allowing Trump to repeatedly call in to shows -- is “one of the most shocking things of the last 30 or 40 years” :
Walter Shapiro, who covered nine presidential campaigns dating back to 1980 for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, and other outlets, said the Trump coverage is unprecedented.
“I find the coverage of Trump, the overcoverage, the fawning coverage of Trump on TV, allowing him to call in, to be one of the most shocking things of the last 30 or 40 years,” Shapiro said. “No one has ever gotten to have all of their campaign speeches broadcast unedited.”
He added, “There have been investigative pieces on Trump, but the pieces have not had as big an echo as some would hope and the saturation coverage of Trump has been so intense by the cable channels that nothing that an army of print journalists could do could combat that.” [Media Matters, 3/3/16]
Fox's Alan Colmes Criticizes Media Networks For Trump's Phone Privileges. On the March 28 edition of Fox News' Happening Now, syndicated radio host Alan Colmes said media should treat Trump “like every other candidate” rather than having “disparate rules depending upon when Donald Trump is available” :
JON SCOTT (HOST): But all he has to do is pick up the phone and call one of the Sunday morning chat shows and they'll put him on, and they put him on for a long time.
ALAN COLMES: They should treat him like every other candidate and say either you have to be in the studio or not, but not give special treatment to Donald Trump who's willing to pick up the phone and they're willing to put him on. Every candidate should be either in studio or by the phone, but not have disparate rules depending upon when Donald Trump is available. [Fox News, Happening Now, 3/28/16, via Media Matters]
CNN's Christiane Amanpour Calls Trump's Phone Privilege “Kind Of Odd.” On the March 28 edition of CNN's CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin, chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour told host Brooke Baldwin that it's “kind of odd” to see Trump doing so many important interviews “over the phone.” She argued that in-person interviews help assess the “measure of the person” and allow reporters to “look into their eyes [and] be able to push them.”
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Donald Trump, as is his wont, because he's a businessman, speaks entirely in dollars and cents. So if you read very closely those pages of transcripts from The New York Times -- which, by the way, he did yet again over the phone -- it's kind of odd doing these big interviews and these big doctrine interviews over the phone. You've got to get a sense of, you know, the measure of the person, look into their eyes, be able to push them, continue to sort of push these issues --
BROOKE BALDWIN (HOST): It's his advantage to pick up the phone, by the way.
AMANPOUR: Yeah, and so you have a lot of -- many people talk about his sort of distracted nature where he jumps from one point to another, and always comes back to the dollars and cents. So, America's broke, therefore, America's weak. These are not true, right, so everybody else has to pony up. This is a businessman's view of the world, presumably. But it doesn't make sense when he talks about, for instance, NATO. NATO is not obsolete. Yes, NATO was created 60-plus years ago in response to the Soviet threat. But still, NATO is the organizing principle by which American and the Western democracies' security is taken care of. And NATO is not just about the United States putting money in. It's about all the other countries putting in their 2 percent of GDP as well. Now, they don't all, that's true, and America wants them all to put more than they do right now. But a good number, nearly half of the NATO countries, put their 2 percent of GDP in. And the other countries do certain things that America doesn't do. Now, America, because it is the most powerful military in the world, does a lot of the heavy lifting. You know, you have a military operation and America will do the troop lifting, for instance. Or it will do, you know, many of those kinds of things. But many of the other countries, whether it's in Afghanistan or elsewhere, pick up a huge lot of the burden as well. [CNN, CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin, 3/28/16, via Media Matters]
CBS Refuses To Give Trump A Phone Interview. After experiencing satellite problems, CBS canceled a March 8 Trump interview rather than doing the interview by phone, according to Politico:
Scheduled to appear on “CBS This Morning” on Tuesday, Donald Trump was a no-show, according to a tweet from the show's executive producer. The Trump campaign cited technical issues.
“Unfortunately @realDonaldTrump suddenly unable to join @CBSThisMorning via camera- we won't take on the phone- so we'll wait for next time!” executive producer Chris Licht, the vice president of CBS News, tweeted Tuesday morning, a minute before the show went to air.
The Republican presidential front-runner often calls into shows rather than appearing live on camera, including on Tuesday, when he phoned into NBC's “Today.” [Politico, 3/8/16]
Fox's Chris Wallace And NBC's Chuck Todd Won't Allow Calls In To Their Sunday Shows. In a March 26 Associated Press article about Trump's phone-in permissions, Chris Wallace, host of Fox News' Fox News Sunday, said he was “shocked” by the idea of interviewing a presidential candidate via phone and that before Trump he had “never seen it before.” Chuck Todd, host of NBC's Meet the Press, said that he took calls from Trump early in the campaign but that he's now “decided to stick to in-person interviews on his Sunday show” :
In television news, a telephone interview is typically frowned upon. Donald Trump's fondness for them is changing habits and causing consternation in newsrooms, while challenging political traditions.
Two organizations are circulating petitions to encourage Sunday morning political shows to hang up on Trump. Some prominent holdouts, like Fox's Chris Wallace, refuse to do on-air phoners. Others argue that a phone interview is better than no interview at all.
Except in news emergencies, producers usually avoid phoners because television is a visual medium -- a face-to-face discussion between a newsmaker and questioner is preferable to a picture of an anchor listening to a disembodied voice.
It's easy to see why Trump likes them. There's no travel or TV makeup involved; if he wishes to, Trump can talk to Matt Lauer without changing out of his pajamas. They often put an interviewer at a disadvantage, since it's harder to interrupt or ask follow-up questions, and impossible to tell if a subject is being coached.
Trump tends to take over phone interviews and can get his message out with little challenge, Wallace said.
“The Sunday show, in the broadcast landscape, I feel is a gold standard for probing interviews,” said Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday.” ''The idea that you would do a phone interview, not face-to-face or not by satellite, with a presidential candidate -- I'd never seen it before, and I was quite frankly shocked that my competitors were doing it."
Since Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, Wallace has conducted three in-person interviews with him on “Fox News Sunday,” and four via satellite.
Chuck Todd, host of NBC's “Meet the Press,” has done phoners with Trump but now said he's decided to stick to in-person interviews on his Sunday show. He's no absolutist, though.
“It's a much better viewer experience when it's in person,” Todd said. “Satellite and phoners are a little harder, there's no doubt about it. But at the end of the day, you'll take something over nothing.” [Associated Press, 3/26/16]
Media Explain How Phoning It In Benefits Trump
Bloomberg View Columnist Al Hunt Explains Built-In Advantages For Trump Phone Interviews. On the March 21 edition of Bloomberg News' With All Due Respect, Bloomberg View columnist Al Hunt said a phone interview is “a lot easier than an in-person interview.” Hunt added that Trump “almost always does well” during phone interviews, and Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times said Trump “steamrolls the interviewer” :
MARK HALPERIN (CO-HOST): How much of Trump's great, luminous coverage is his doing, and how much is it just the press acting on its own, do you think?
JIM RUTENBERG: You know, it's -- my favorite quote that actually my colleague Maureen Dowd got, was Trump said to her late last week, “You know, I do these tweets, and they could be totally insignificant, and they break right into the news,” so it's not all his doing. It's a symbiosis.
HALPERIN: If Trump continues to get coverage like this, in it's volume, and he is the nominee and Hillary Clinton is the nominee, do you think that will be a huge advantage for him in a general election? Just the huge volume of coverage, as compared to her?
RUTENBERG: You know, I do, because a lot of people make the argument, and maybe -- you know, I'm sure we would all agree, right, I think we do, that not all the coverage is positive. But, I don't know, do you remember in 2004, when the war was being discussed a lot, and reporters would say to the Bush strategist, “Hey, they're talking about the war, it's not going well,” and they always said, “As long as we're talking about the war, we're winning.” As long as we are talking about Trump, he is winning.
AL HUNT: Jim, it's Al Hunt. First of all, great debut today, but you know, in reading your column, you pointed out that FOX, and that Chuck Todd of NBC said, “No more of this special treatment where you get to phone in on Sunday interviews,” which is a much easier interview. And then I watched George Stephanopoulos, who let him phone in, and he just slam-dunked the ABC moderator. If he -- if one does it, aren't the others going to cave in?
RUTENBERG: I don't know, because now I'm thinking, Well, maybe George decides, and they didn't want to talk about it very much, but maybe George decides, Hey, you know what? Those guys aren't going to take him on the phone, I will. I'll get a spike in the ratings.
HUNT: Well, but as you know, a phone interview for a subject is a lot easier than an in-person interview, and Trump almost always does well at those situations.
RUTENBERG: I mean, my impression when I see that is that he steamrolls the interviewer. [MSNBC, With All Due Respect, 3/21/16]
CNN's Chris Cuomo: Phone Interviews Are A "Tactic, A Strategy" That Gives Trump Advantages. CNN New Day co-host Chris Cuomo described Trump's phone privilege as a “strategy more than it is convenience” in a September 10 blog post by The Washington Post's Erik Wemple. He added that Trump benefits from the strategy since he “doesn't have to pick up on any visual cues” or “worry about the body language that is coming from somewhere else” and said it's easier to “over-talk the questioner” during a phone interview:
Not so Republican frontrunner Donald Trump. He's the phone guy, the candidate who apparently prefers to give news audiences just his voice.
It's easy to chalk up Trump's insistence on phone interviews to low-energy considerations, though Cuomo isn't buying the notion. “I would suggest it's a tactic, a strategy more than it is convenience,” he says. Here are the various advantages that Trump derives, in the view of the host:
*He doesn't have to pick up on any visual cues, he doesn't have to worry about the body language that is coming from somewhere else."
* “It's easy for him to over-talk the questioner.”
*It's tricky for interviewers, because they're not looking at their interviewee; they're looking into a camera.
Perhaps for some of those reasons, certain programs -- notably, Chris Wallace's “Fox News Sunday” -- don't allow phoners, as Huffington Post's Michael Calderone pointed out last month after a series of Trump call-ins. [The Washington Post, Erik Wemple, 9/10/15]
Bloomberg's Mark Halperin: Trump Uses Phone Interviews To “Dominate” The Media Narrative Without “Leaving Trump Tower.” On the March 17 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Bloomberg's Mark Halperin called out Trump's phone privilege, noting that Trump can dominate a day's news cycle without having to leave Manhattan, or The Trump Tower:
JOE SCARBOROUGH (CO-HOST): We were thinking that he might rest when he got off the campaign trail. He had a very busy day yesterday, canceling debates, attacking Hillary Clinton, you name it. Talking about riots if he's not nominated. Once again, driving the entire news day while, as Mark said, he was lounging at home in his Barcalounger.
SCARBOROUGH: We always wanted to know what a day off the campaign trail would look like for Donald Trump. It seemed he consumed media by doing four very provocative things that if any other candidate had done one of those provocative things it would have made headlines and filled up their basically news quota for the week.
MARK HALPERIN: I mean, he got dressed to do the Bill O'Reilly interview, but everything else he did, the web video and the morning shows by phone, including this one, and on Twitter, just another show of how he can dominate a day without leaving Manhattan or leaving Trump Tower. Monday is going to be a very big day when he does that AIPAC speech that he's doing instead of the debate because Hillary Clinton is speaking to the same group and while both of them are still in nomination fights, it's going to be a side-by-side comparison for the first time in a forum that you wouldn't think would necessarily play to his strength. And I'm pretty confident she's going try to give a speech to frame the general election not just on issues related to Israel but on the question of who's ready to be commander in chief. It's going to be fascinating to see what kind of speech he gives head to head. [MSNBC, Morning Joe, 3/17/16, via Media Matters]
Huffington Post's Michael Calderone: Easier To “Change The Subject” By Phone. In a September 22 article, The Huffington Post's Michael Calderone wrote that while Trump is “an experienced television performer,” it's easier for him to “speak over the host to change the subject” in a phone interview:
Presidential candidates have traditionally flocked to Sunday morning shows during campaign season to make their cases directly to the American people. This past weekend was no exception, as a half-dozen 2016 contenders appeared in TV studios or remotely on camera.
Republican front-runner Donald Trump, however, broke from the pack by speaking on three Sunday programs -- NBC's “Meet the Press,” ABC's “This Week,” and CNN's “State of the Union” -- but only by phone.
Trump has employed this tactic before, as The Huffington Post examined last month. During one particularly busy five-day stretch in August, Trump did nine phone interviews across broadcast and cable networks, four of which took place on Sunday shows.
CNN “New Day” co-host Chris Cuomo, who has interviewed Trump by phone several times on air, recently described the real estate developer's call-in method as a “strategy.”
Though Trump is an experienced television performer, he 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. And he can efficiently knock out several interviews in a row from the comfort of his home or office, dominating the news cycle without even having to get out of his pajamas. [The Huffington Post, 9/22/15]