In case you thought former President Donald Trump was going to sit quietly in Florida playing bad golf, drinking Diet Cokes and eating cheeseburgers, consider this TV moment from last week.
Early Tuesday evening, CNN and other cable channels were focused on President Joe Biden as he boarded Air Force One for a trip to Milwaukee, where he would take part in his first cable news town hall since becoming president.
CNN, which was hosting the event with Anderson Cooper, had a countdown clock and a quarter-screen camera shot of the stage at the Pabst Theater where the town hall would be held.
But just as the TV focus intensified with live coverage of Air Force One taking off, screens were further split so that anchors could report breaking news: Former President Donald Trump was essentially declaring war on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, who had blamed the president for the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, even after voting to acquit Trump in last week’s impeachment trial.
“The Republican Party can never again be respected or strong with political ‘leaders’ like Sen. Mitch McConnell at its helm,” Trump said in a statement emailed to media outlets.
He went on to blame McConnell for the loss of two Senate seats in Georgia, saying in the statement, “It was a complete election disaster in Georgia, and certain other swing states. McConnell did nothing, and will never do what needs to be done in order to secure a fair and just electoral system into the future. He doesn’t have what it takes, never did, and never will.“
And then came the signature Trump personal attack: “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again,” the statement said.
CNN held its Biden focus better than the others Tuesday night, but it was heavily invested with its prime-time town hall telecast. Most of the other channels, though, couldn’t resist the “dour political hack” attack and went scrambling down the Trump rabbit hole. It was like someone yelled “fight” in a high school parking lot during a Friday night dance with lots of underage drinking and everyone scrambled to see the drunken combatants go at it.
The Tuesday-night tug of war for coverage encapsulates the challenge that media, especially cable news channels that help set the national agenda, must overcome if they want to help the country move forward, function again and maybe even heal. Media need to keep the focus on Biden and ignore Trump’s provocations aimed at regaining the spotlight.
Media did not do so well this week.
All the channels, CNN included, were still giving this failed former president too much airtime Wednesday over his attack on McConnell.
“Trump calls for McConnell to be replaced as feud intensifies,” the headline on CNN said at 1:40 p.m. Wednesday as the screen was filled with video of the former president.
The headline on CNN at 2:45 p.m. featured a statement about the feud from South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham: “Graham: Trump, McConnell feud has me worried for 2022 midterms.”
Forget the GOP midterms in 2022, how about more coverage on how Team Biden is or isn’t getting COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of citizens right now. Like his predecessor, Biden seemed eager in the town hall Tuesday to lay most responsibility for deciding who and how Americans are going to get vaccines off on the states. How is that working out in Maryland?
Trump can play this game forever. It’s called “I can be so bad and transgressive you can’t ignore me.” But we must try to ignore him as much as possible or we will never dig our way out of the holy hell of a mess he left behind.
Finally, at 3 p.m. Wednesday when the hosts changed, the headlines did, too. At 3:01 on CNN: “Soon: Biden, Harris promote Covid stimulus plan.” Which topic do you think mattered more to people who are about to be evicted or are unable to buy groceries for their families, what Trump thinks of McConnell or the stimulus plan?
At 3:35 p.m., though, it was back to Trump on CNN: “Party Divided: Trump rips McConnell after impeachment acquittal.”
And that’s CNN, the most down-the-middle, journalistically solid voice you will find on cable news.
Wednesday night, Newsmax, one of the right-wing channels kissing up to Trump, provided the former president with a platform to continue spreading the big lie that led to the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“We did win the election, as far as I’m concerned,” Trump said in a phone interview with host Greg Kelly on the “Greg Kelly Reports” show. “It was disgraceful what happened, totally disgraceful … Really bad and dishonest things happened … And when they say ‘Stop the Steal,’ they’re not just kidding. It’s a disgrace. It’s like a third-world country with the elections.” (Fact check: Neither the Justice Department nor any of the courts in states where Trump and his allies filed such charges found any wrongdoing in the November election.)
“Disgrace” seemed to be the word of the day. Trump went on to say he watched Biden’s town hall and the president was, you guessed it, a “disgrace.” He also suggested Biden was being soft on China, because of possible financial relationships with the Chinese by Biden family members. Innuendo meet smear.
It is an understatement to say there was no pushback; Kelly served more as a cheerleader than interviewer during the segment. And Trump reciprocated, praising Kelly for his work as host: “Congratulations … You have done a fantastic job.”
Trump characterized his appearance as part of an effort to celebrate the career of radio personality Rush Limbaugh whose death was announced earlier in the day.
The former president also appeared with Sean Hannity on Fox News Wednesday night to talk about Limbaugh. Hannity tried his best to open the door for return visits. But it seems Trump still has not forgiven Fox for calling Arizona for Biden on election night. Now he was back in prime time on the channel with the biggest conservative audience.
The relationship seen in the Kelly-Trump conversation Wednesday is standard operating procedure in right-wing media where Fox News founder Roger Ailes set the template for a channel acting like it is a news outlet but in reality being more a political tool than a journalistic enterprise. That’s not going to change, especially given the ratings success Newsmax and One America News Network have enjoyed since Trump turned to them at the expense of Fox.
But the news channels of CNN, MSNBC and CNBC that aspire to and generally practice mainstream news values have to do a journalistic gut check on how they handle Trump. And I think it should be public for the sake of transparency.
If we believe our worth as American journalists is ultimately determined by how well our work serves democracy, how do you cover someone who has shown his desire to destroy democracy as Trump did on Jan. 6? Can you continue to just report his words and actions and point out where his lies are disproved by facts, such as I did in this column with the Justice Department and courts contradicting his claims about election fraud?
Or, do you have go to another kind of coverage in which you characterize and denounce him as a serious threat to democracy itself every time you mention his name?
That is not an easy question to answer because it cuts to the heart of notions of objectivity and down-the-middle journalism that he we have portrayed ourselves as practicing for more than 100 years. But how do you remain neutral in covering someone who wants to destroy you and the country you love? That’s a discussion we need to have if we are going to save democracy and bring this country back from the ditch into which Trump drove it.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik