Broadcast network hosts are finally starting to ask Donald Trump about his campaign manager's alleged battery against a reporter, but the GOP presidential front-runner's unprecedented phone privileges are helping him control the narrative and smear the victim.
Donald Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was arrested and charged with battery on March 29 after then-Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields alleged that he “grabbed” her arm and “yanked” her following a press conference. Video evidence was subsequently released showing Lewandowski grabbing Fields. Following the arrest, Trump defended Lewandowski, claiming that the tapes show “nothing” and threatening to “press charges” against Fields.
On March 30, Fox News' Fox & Friends, NBC's Today, and ABC's Good Morning America conducted live interviews by phone with Trump. Though the hosts, to varying degrees, sparred with Trump over the incident and his smears against Fields, the phone interview format enabled him to dominate the conversation, victim-blaming Fields and steamrolling the hosts' pushback.
During Trump's 11-minute phone interview on Fox & Friends, the three hosts allowed Trump to sully Fields' accusations by reinterpreting the video evidence. They let him claim the tape “shows very little” in terms of what Lewandowski did, claim instead that it showed Fields being “a very aggressive person ... grabbing at me and touching me.” After co-host Brian Kilmeade asked Trump, “Why is a campaign manager even touching a reporter?” Trump again flipped the script and without interruption excused Lewandowski's actions because Fields was “grabbing” at him.
Similarly, Trump's phone interview on NBC's Today allowed him to dodge and steamroll Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie's questioning over the incident. Though Lauer and Guthrie repeatedly attempted to correct Trump's spin about the incident and his baseless allegations against Fields, he consistently overpowered them, yelling into the phone that Fields deserved the alleged assault because she “was asking me questions she wasn't supposed to.” After Lauer pressed him on whether this whole situation would have been resolved if Lewandowski apologized initially, Trump responded, “I think she would have pressed charges anyway because I think she likes it.”
And during Trump's phone interview on ABC's Good Morning America, guest host David Muir allowed Trump to talk at length, uninterrupted, about the situation and to call Fields' accusations a “disgrace.”
The practice of letting a presidential candidate eschew on-camera interviews in favor of calling in by phone is both unprecedented in American politics and unique to Donald Trump. Broadcast networks have overwhelmingly allowed Trump -- and Trump only -- to call in to Sunday morning political talk shows. In total, Trump conducted 69 phone interviews in the first 69 days of 2016.
Earlier this month, CBS This Morning announced it would no longer allow Trump to phone in for interviews. It is likely no coincidence that Trump skipped the show altogether today while phoning in to its broadcast competitors.
Media critics have spoken against the call-in practice, noting that allowing Trump to interview by phone “is a signal of the extent to which the television cable networks contort themselves to accommodate Trump.” They contend that phone interviews give Trump an obvious advantage over his rivals, allowing him to ignore hosts' visual cues and body language, dodge or shout over interviewers' questions, and avoid awkward confrontations.
Trump's phone privileges are helping him to victim-blame Michelle Fields and excuse Corey Lewandowski's alleged battery, even when interviewers try their best to push back.
By shouting into the phone instead of engaging in person, Trump controls the interviews, whether his hosts know it or not. How much longer will the broadcast networks and cable news channels stand for it?
You can add your voice to Media Matters' petition for the media to end Trump's phone privilege by signing here.