For the most part, forget the words that President Donald Trump said Sunday night to Lesley Stahl in his “60 Minutes” interview.
It is a mistake to focus on his words. He lies about almost everything. And he denies saying all sorts of things whenever he finds it convenient. He did just that Sunday when he insisted he did not mock Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the Brett Kavanaugh hearing when that’s exactly what he did in the most despicable fashion.
What matters about Trump’s first interview in almost two years on what is by far the largest forum in TV news is the performance. How did he come off in the language of visual performance?
And even more important, what was he up to in doing the interview on a network he has castigated as fake news?
As an interviewer, Stahl did most of the right things, according to the rules of traditional journalism. She was well prepared. She pushed back in the kind of bantering tone the late correspondent Mike Wallace and founder Don Hewitt established for “60 Minutes” interviews. She hit most of the hot spots in the national psyche concerning Trump in recent months, from his love of Vladimir Putin to his mockery of Ford at a recent rally in Mississippi.
But in TV terms, it’s advantage Trump — at least, with his base. In truth, I think his TV win is even bigger than that.
What members of his base will remember are moments like the one when Stahl asked Trump to “pledge” on-air that he would not shut down Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 — a probe that has widened considerably into other realms of Trump’s life.
“I don’t pledge anything,” he said. “Why should I pledge to you? If I pledge, I’ll pledge.”
The answer was colloquial New York in attitude and totally defiant toward the press. It was also quite clever in exposing what I am sure many citizens see as the arrogance of the press, with Stahl assuming the right to command a public pledge from the president.
As much as I loathe Trump’s dangerous attitude toward the press, I have to acknowledge that this is just the kind of hot dog move TV interviewers too often make — calling for an on-the-spot promise or pledge when it would be insane in a practical sense for anyone to do so. And Trump exposed it with his contemptuous, “Why should I pledge to you?”
Given that I hate what he’s doing to the country, I can only imagine how much his supporters loved it.
But the larger story of Trump’s interview with “60 Minutes” is in him leaving the friendly confines of such platforms as Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group for the mainstream, legitimate news outlets he has been trashing as fake news since he took office.
This is the story that matters: The ratings for Trump’s prime-time rallies have been slipping on Fox News to the point where the president’s favorite propaganda channel is no longer carrying them in full. (MSNBC and CNN stopped showing them long ago.)
And the loss of prime time coverage could not come at a worse time with do-or-die midterm elections only three weeks away.
Trump has to find new media platforms on which to sell his endorsement of Republican candidates as well as his own accomplishments, which is why he went to the biggest news show on television Sunday.
That’s also why he had Kanye West in the White House last week, and why you will be seeing his face and hearing his lies everywhere on TV the next three weeks.
I was part of a discussion Sunday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” about this major shift in Trump’s media strategy. Along with host Brian Stelter, the conversation included Gabby Orr, the Politico White House reporter who co-wrote the first article about Trump’s media move, and CNN political commentator Doug Heye.
Stelter raised the question of whether more access to the president is a good thing given all the misinformation and lies he pumps into the media ecosystem during TV interviews.
I said that Trump believes in nothing as much as ratings. In fact, his very self-concept seems wedded to the Nielsen numbers. I believe he’s rattled by the fact that his ratings have hit the point where even Fox can no longer afford to give him prime-time real estate. I also pointed out the way he kissed up to Fox at his last rally in Mississippi telling the audience how much he loved each of the prime time hosts — and doing so by name.
The next three weeks are going to be fascinating to watch as Trump changes his media game and tries to regain his ratings mojo.