A roadmap for TV coverage of the 2024 campaign

Marvin Kalb, Founding Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy

CNN might have lost its soul when it recently invited Donald Trump to a live town hall meeting, but it might in the process have stumbled upon a new, acceptable roadmap for covering the former president during this presidential campaign.

For a journalist, any roadmap with “Full Stop” signs is instantly problematic, but then again so too is Trump as a candidate. He requires a fresh approach.

Because Trump has proven himself to be an experienced TV performer who craves the limelight and will say just about anything, true or false, for a laugh or a headline, he should never again be invited to do a live interview on television. CNN’s Kaitlan Collins recently did a noble job of trying to catch up with Trump’s Niagara flow of lies and misrepresentations, but she failed, as would, I suspect, most other TV news interviewers.

In this instance, live television was a trap.

But there is an obvious way around the live interview. It is the pre-taped interview, which would probably also be chockfull of Trump’s predictable falsehoods, but it would allow a network to present the candidate’s views, in his own words, but also provide editing time for correcting the record.

A good historical example exists for using this approach. In March, 1954, when CBS’s Edward R. Murrow in a special broadcast confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he considered a clear challenge to American freedom and democracy, Murrow presented the Senator’s policies in his own words, quote after quote, but he did not do it live. “We cannot defend freedom abroad,” he explained, “by deserting it at home.”

Even though CNN claimed there were no conditions for winning Trump’s agreement to appear on the network he often disparaged as an “enemy of the people,” this claim is belied by the fact that CNN loaded the audience with pro-Trump GOP’ers, plus independents, but with no Democrats or critics, providing Trump with a readymade cheering section that laughed at his humor and conveyed a misleading impression of national approval. Suburban women, for example, would be unlikely to giggle along with Trump’s repeated denigration of women.

Unintentionally, CNN, by inviting the GOP’s strongest presidential candidate, gave Trump “his best campaign moment so far,” according to The Hill. He attracted more than 3-million viewers, temporarily boosting CNN’s sagging ratings. In addition, his TV appearance helped distract attention from “sexual abuse” charges leveled against him in a New York courtroom the day before. It also helped him “consolidate his lock” on the GOP nomination, according to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. “The more attention we give him,” Stephens said, “the stronger he gets.”

CNN’s town hall served Trump in another way, too. It resembled a mini-rally, which is Trump’s favored format. During the 2016 campaign, Trump attracted live coverage of his rallies, where he dominated the political scene with his uninhibited attacks on many of his favorite targets, including the media and his political opponents. CNN and other cable networks provided free and valuable airtime, hundreds of hours of it, with no comparable time for counter-argument or correction. He owned the airways then, and now, post-CNN, may be on the edge of owning them again.

Against this embarrassing backdrop, cable networks should decide during the 2024 campaign there will be no live coverage of Trump rallies–or anyone else’s either. If, for a few minutes, a network wishes to cover a rally live to convey color or perhaps a newsworthy quote, that would be acceptable, but nothing more. If Trump makes news with a startling accusation or comment on national or world affairs, the network can always break into its regularly scheduled news programs and report the news. That is the network’s primary responsibility—to report the news, not to become an unwitting arm of a political campaign.

CNN justified its controversial decision by stating the obvious—Trump is a declared candidate for re-election, he is, say the polls, the leading GOP candidate, and he’s supposedly beating President Joe Biden by 7 points at this point in the campaign. All true, but Trump is also under investigation for violating the law governing presidential papers, instigating the January 6th insurrection, and interfering with Georgia election law, and he is accused of having sexually—and proudly–abused any number of women.

Trump is damaged goods, and enough Republicans may one day decide they don’t want him to be president once again, though evidence to that effect is wanting. At this time, though, he remains a proven master of self-promotion, especially on television. He knows he’s news, and he seems to feel entitled to live coverage, which he controls.

But the fact is network executives still make the big decisions on who gets live coverage, when they get it and who is to make up the audience. These are major decisions, and in a highly competitive TV environment, difficult decisions. But given the continuing central importance of television in political campaigns, network executives now find themselves carrying a very heavy responsibility, which may ultimately decide whether Trump wins in 2024 and, if he does, whether journalism and democracy, as practiced in this country up to this moment in its history, will prevail. Unfortunately that is an open question at the moment.