With the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic ravaging the country, President Trump has continued to hold daily (with few exceptions) press conferences since around the middle of March. These daily television events sometimes last upward of two hours, or more, and usually feature the President speaking first, then turning over the mic to a mix of his Coronavirus Task Force, usually followed by Vice President Mike Pence.
Some analysts have argued that giving the President hours of television time on a daily basis, which is usually carried by all cable news, and sometimes broadcast news channels, is akin to giving the President a free campaign commercial in place of his frequent political rallies, which have been postponed due to the virus.
In an opinion article out today in the New York Times, writer Jennifer Senior argues that the President is abusing the privilege of holding these press conferences and that former vice president Joe Biden should be given the opportunity to get equal air time:
Trump’s nightly news conferences, propaganda from the very beginning, are now aimed almost entirely at his base. They are campaign events. And if they are campaign events, the cable news outlets, which still carry the bulk of them live, ought to balance their programming. They ought to check in with the Joe Biden camp before, during and after each one.
It would be harder to make the case for equal time for Biden if Trump were busy telling us what he’s doing during these Potemkin pressers. But he’s repeatedly telling us what he’s not doing, because he’s apparently responsible for nothing. What he’s doing instead is running campaign ads, in the form of … actual campaign ads, including a four-minute, onanistic montage of self tribute, deceitfully argued and insipidly scored with violins.
Senior is no fan of the President, and her criticism is especially harsh calling the press conferences a form of “propaganda” mixed with some expert opinions tossed in.
Back on April 13, for example, the press conference started with what could be arguably called a campaign ad, as Politico explains:
President Donald Trump fiercely defended his administration’s response to the coronavirus during Monday’s task force briefing, complete with a campaign-ad-like video aimed at bolstering his case.
Monday’s briefing appeared to be fashioned as a rebuttal to a damning report in The New York Times detailing Trump’s early inaction on the outbreak despite warnings from national security and public health officials, and to criticisms of his coronavirus response writ large. The entire affair lasted nearly two and a half hours, his longest yet of the almost-daily briefings.
On screens behind him, a montage of the timeline of the administration’s response to the virus began to play, splicing favorable news clips between headings like “the media minimized the risk from the start … while President Trump took decisive action … even as partisans sniped and criticized.”
There is no question that in place of raucous rallies held in packed areas, the President is using the daily Coronavirus press briefings as half informative, and half campaign outreach.
The President’s daily media presence usually doesn’t stop at the end of the televised briefing. ABC News also reports that his campaign has created a press conference “after-show,” of sorts, with the President taking his routine to a live stream with supporters:
After nearly two hours last Wednesday, President Donald Trump walked away from the podium following another White House coronavirus briefing.
Seconds later, his campaign’s digital operation went live with its online show.
“Good evening everyone, and welcome to the army for Trump digital bootcamp,” an energetic Erin Perrine, the Trump campaign’s principal deputy communications director, said at the top of one of the team’s new daily online shows.
It’s a virtual hand-off between the president and his campaign that’s become routine each night. As the perpetual daily press briefings continue, Trump’s re-election team has found a way to capitalize on the attention generated online from the briefings by strategically airing nighty digital events that effectively serve as a post-game show for the president’s loyal base.
If we circle back around the original accusation, from Jennifer Senior writing in the New York Times, the question must be asked whether President Trump could be viewed as violating the FCC Equal-time rule and whether media outlets are helping him do it. There’s a case to be made that at least some of each Coronavirus press briefing is “red meat” for Trump’s base, while the rest is basically a laundry list of what the administration is doing about the outbreak and whatever new information reporters might be interested in.
It’s the “red meat” portion of the briefings that could, in theory, create a case where the Biden campaign demands equal access to television time. The only question is whether networks would choose to join a Biden press conference, but if the courts got involved, they could be forced to if they also choose to air portions of President Trump’s press conferences that are deemed to be part of a political campaign by the nature of the content. How do you differentiate the two? That’s a question that would be difficult for anyone to determine. Does Biden deserve thirty minutes? Two Hours? Ten minutes? How much of the press conference today compared to yesterday was subjectively political versus informative? That’s a hard needle to thread.
Like many things under the Trump presidency, the edges are being blurred and lines are being pushed in ways that prior presidents have not tested. Trump is no dummy when it comes to gathering eyeballs focused on his message and creating “must-watch” TV events, just look at his rise in 2016 where practically every cable network carried the bulk of his campaign for the Republican nomination almost night and day.
In many ways, this discussion is the continuation of the discussion in 2015 and 2016, when it was said that collectively, media outlets softly “contributed” $5 billion worth of free media to Trump’s campaign. With COVID-19 as the backdrop, Trump has figured out a way to make them do it again.