David Zurawik

Trump's TV messaging machine not looking quite so mighty these days

President Donald J. Trump loves to talk about his TV ratings and how all the networks and cable channels benefit from his self-described tremendous appeal to viewers.

But this week, he got some bad news from the TV gods at Nielsen: Ratings for his reality-TV-like production introducing Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee for the Supreme Court were down 21 percent from his 2017 announcement of Neil Gorsuch as his choice for the high court. Where the Gorsuch show drew 32.4 million, Monday’s much-promoted-by-the-president production drew 25.6 million.


And while viewing is lower somewhat in general during the summer months than in January, when the Gorsuch pick was announced, that does not hold for news events of this magnitude with such epic matters as the future of Roe v. Wade on the table. It actually doesn’t even hold for highly anticipated streamed entertainment programs, for that matter.

In the world of TV in which Trump claims to be such a winner, a year-to-year drop of 21 percent is a cause for worry summer, spring, winter or fall.


But it’s not the one-shot ratings hit that Trump took Monday night that matters most to me. I stopped loving ratings decades ago, and the more fragmented the media universe gets, the less I like them as a window into American taste and culture.

What matters is a larger pattern that it is part of, which started coming into focus for me while watching Trump’s rally in Montana July 5.

I was surprised when I tuned into that rally after it had started to find it only on a Fox channel. That’s a change from the days when all the cable news channels were so dialed into Trump that they would show an empty podium at which he was scheduled to appear — sometimes with a countdown clock in the corner of the screen.

But more telling to me was the extreme tone he took in that appearance — attacking George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain, while absolutely trolling the #MeToo movement as he once again played the racist bully to Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And just one week after the murder of five journalists by a gunman at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, there he was again pointing to the press and calling journalists “bad people.”

Even for a Trump rally, it was a new level of nasty. Calling journalists “bad people” in the wake of the Annapolis killings is despicable. It is beyond the pale of decent human behavior even for the most craven politician.

Thinking about the president in TV terms as I watched, he struck me as a performer who feared he was losing his audience and felt he had to take his act to another, more intense level to try and hold them or, in some cases, get them back. He was a version of the Las Vegas lounge comic or low-rent radio shock jock who has to be more and more insulting, crude, coarse and profane to try and keep his drunken nightclubgoers or jaded listeners tuned into his act.

He was a poor man’s Howard Stern, only this guy lived in the White House and could appoint people to the Supreme Court or order children to be taken from their parents at the Texas border.

Ezra Klein, Vox editor-at-large, sparked a discussion that got considerable traction when he told CNN’s Brian Stelter on last Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” show that he thought the media needed to re-think the way they covered Trump rallies. Klein argued for even less coverage, in part based on the notion that as shocking and outrageous as Trump might be, there is nothing new going on and it is up to the press not to let Trump continuously drive our coverage with his chaos.


I rarely agreed with Klein during the 2016 campaign when it came to how we should cover Trump. I found his approach too partisan. But I agree with Klein on this one.

Last August I wrote a column that began, “We are a nation hopelessly distracted by a 71-year-old, narcissistic media addict in the White House and a cable news industry that can’t get enough of him. The dance cable news and the president have been doing virtually 24/7 since he started vanquishing his Republican challengers is dazzling — almost hypnotic if you are a media critic. But in recent weeks, that relationship has come to feel deadly to democracy.”

And it had only been getting worse until CNN and MSNBC started dialing back coverage of his rallies. While I wholeheartedly believe it is our obligation to cover everything we consider newsworthy and to do so in an even-handed manner, we also have an obligation to cover the events of the day in a proportionate way that helps consumers make sense of the world and informed choices about their lives. Pinballing day in and day out with the mercurial Trump is not the best way to fulfill that latter duty. Of that I am sure.

I have to admit, when I couldn’t find the Montana rally on CNN or MSNBC, I thought, “Good for them. And good for us that they are not riding the Trump tiger tonight and allowing him a larger megaphone for his hateful words.”

I spent much of 2017 worrying and writing about Trump building a mighty right-wing messaging machine.

And he has indeed put some impressive pieces of it together.


The relationship between Trump and Fox News is unprecedented. Never have a major news outlet and a president been so openly in league with each other — never. Led by Sean Hannity at 9 p.m., Fox News is as close to pure propaganda during prime time as any major TV outlet has ever been.

Not only does Fox News not try to hide it, management seems proud of the connection Hannity has as chief on-air cheerleader and informal adviser to Trump.

Typical of his role as propagandist, Tuesday night, Hannity insisted that the widespread protests expected in Europe against Trump were a good thing — proof that America is once again respected.

“And here we are today with more animosity towards a sitting U.S. president because he projects America as a force for good and strength in the world,” Hannity told viewers.

“Now this is the greatest tribute that America is now back and strong and actually leading on the world stage; the apology tour is over,” he added, taking a shot at President Barack Obama.

Hannity is said to have been largely responsible for getting his friend and one-time producer, former Fox News co-president Bill Shine, hired as Trump’s new chief of communications.


Shine comes to that job after having been forced out at Fox amid allegations that he helped cover up complaints of predatory sexual behavior by his boss, Roger Ailes. Indicative of the incestuous relationship between Trump and Fox, the job Shine assumed last week had reportedly been offered earlier in the year to Laura Ingraham, now the 10 p.m. host on Fox.

Trump also has what I foresaw as possibly his greatest weapon in the Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has the capacity to deliver Trump talking points to viewers of its stations around the country through the mouth of its chief political analyst, Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide.

But I believe the brands of both Fox and Sinclair have been tarnished by their relationships to Trump.

In 2017, I wrote that Sinclair’s bid to be the biggest TV company in the nation could also make it the most hated. And the massive pounding it took as the result of a Deadspin video montage showing anchor after anchor at Sinclair stations mouthing the same scripted words about “fake stories” and “biased” news being “extremely dangerous to our democracy” suggests that process might be well underway.

Meanwhile, look at all the media territory Trump has lost as his actions in the White House have become more and more controversial, like his defense of white supremacists in Charlottesville last summer, or his zero-tolerance policy on the Texas border this year.

During the 2016 campaign in the days of the empty podium shots, Trump could call into MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” or CNN’s “New Day” and get almost as much on-the-phone free airtime as he wanted.


Now, he can’t even get his rallies consistently covered on those channels, except on videotape in a heavily controlled and contextualized manner. And it looks as if it is getting harder for Trump to attract the kind of TV audiences he was a year ago for his prime-time productions.

Trump still has media power. Fox is the highest-rated cable news channel, and Sinclair will have more than 200 stations if it ever gets government approval of its purchase of Tribune Media.

But they are now in an ideological bunker together — Trump, Fox, Sinclair and a few other right-wing platforms. Their own actions, pressure by consumer groups and the vigorous coverage of their relationships by the mainstream media helped put them there.

Those media companies now tied to Trump had better hope he doesn’t flame out into infamy or bail on them when the going gets really tough, as he has on some of his other partners in the past.