TV finds a winning formula for Trump inauguration coverage

Even the biggest chatterboxes on cable TV knew enough to mainly get out of the way today.

Television’s days might be numbered in a digital world. But it still has an unrivaled ability to cover a wide range of events in a short space of time. And, in the main, it showed that today with its blanket inauguration coverage.

The medium is never better when it comes to politics than when it cuts down on the chatter, focuses the cameras and lets viewers bear witness to the major rituals of American civic life. Streaming can do some of that, too, in its own jumpy way, but never with the same kind of wide-screen fullness and depth that sets the pageantry against a backdrop of the buildings and monuments that symbolize our democracy.

TV did that superbly in the morning as it chronicled the peaceful transition of power between two men who could hardly be less alike in their notions of the role of government. And then, it did it again to a lesser extent late in the afternoon covering the inaugural parade.

In between, cable TV shifted gears for an hour or so to a very different kind of coverage: breaking news reporting of violent protests in a small area of Washington that resulted in about 95 arrests, according to reports.

At the start of the day, I was worn out talking about and listening to others talk about the legacy of former President Barack Obama and the threat or promise, depending on the speaker’s point of view, of President Donald Trump. I just wanted the inauguration to be over so that the partisan rancor might subside for a few days.

But within an hour of the morning’s ceremonies, I was re-invigorated by TV coverage that gave me the space to wallow in the images and sounds of this remarkable transition taking place without too much talk from the likes of a Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson.  

Television became the principle storyteller of American life in its 1963 coverage of the death and funeral of President Kennedy. And for members of my generation, the sounds, images and emotions we experienced as we watched that wrenching exchange of power from Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson will remain with us for life.

No one understood at the time the way such media images are burned into our hearts and psyches. But they were, along with an entire catalogue of others like Richard Nixon boarding a helicopter after resigning in disgrace and being borne away from the White House in 1974.

Every time I come to an event like the inauguration today, all the images and sounds of that memory bank are summoned to mind.

And so, what mattered today was not which channel did better or worse in covering the event. That’s a fairly foolish critical approach for the ceremonial part of the coverage when almost everyone was using the same shared photography.

The image of Obama’s Executive One helicopter sitting in front of the Capitol while Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and their wives stood on the Capitol steps with members of Congress waiting to send them off was awesome. I couldn’t help but think as I watched the handshakes between the new and former president, of leaders in other countries fleeing their palaces in the dead of night or escaping in a private plane with military vehicles on the runway trying to block their escape.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen here. And whether or not you like the the results of this election, today was a day to celebrate the way we hand off power without violence in our democracy.

I loved the cameras showing up close and personal the way President Obama and first lady Michele Obama greeted Trump and his wife, Melania, at the White House as they arrived to start the transition.

And what a class act Obama was today guiding them through the protocols. Melania Trump didn’t seem clear about whether to shake hands or air-kiss Michelle Obama, but Obama smoothed over the moment with a kind word suggesting he and his wife had to learn the protocols at one point, too.

Obama never seemed better to me than he did this morning as he subsumed his ego in his ritualistic role of smoothly handing off power to his successor. He was serving the republic and all of us in selflessly and gracefully marching through the steps that had been inscribed centuries ago.

I also loved the backstage/onstage look TV pool cameras offered inside and outside the Capitol showing us the presidential family, former presidents, members of Congress and other dignitaries waiting to be announced.

Viewers could see the tension on Melania Trump’s face as she was walking backstage toward the entrance on the west side of the Capitol where the swearing in would take place. As soon as the former model reached the door, she hit a totally different, proud stride looking like a performer on a stage or runway. She’s got the public part of this first lady thing down cold, I thought.

I will leave analysis of Trump's anti-Washington speech to the political analysts. I wish the TV channels would have done the same. But you can't have everything.

Once the protests started after the transition, MSNBC, CNN and Fox all jumped into on-the-street, breaking-news mode. MSNBC was in the thick of it, but its images were so watery it was hard at times to know what you were seeing.

MSNBC and CNN gave nice perspective, with the former defining the area of protest as K and 12th, 13th and 14th Streets, while CNN got DC’s interim police chief, Peter Newsham, on the phone at 2:33 p.m. for hard facts about the number of arrests and what he described as a narrowly contained area of conflict.

At that point, coverage shifted back to the parade route.

Typical of the better calls made during the day, anchors on all the channels except CNBC stopped talking at 3:33 p.m. as Trump and Pence reviewed the troops from the steps of the Capitol at the start of the parade.

At 4:13 p.m., the president, first lady and their son, Baron, got out of the limousine and started walking down the parade route.

“Let’s pick up the moment by letting you listen to how the crowd is reacting,” CNN’s Chris Cuomo said, sounding the winning formula for TV coverage today.

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