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Should the news media cover a defeated president who won’t leave the stage?

12 / 05 / 2020

Listen closely… Can you hear it? It’s the sound of cable “news” ratings plummeting.

Which channels? Well, we’re going to find out. We already know that FOX News Channel’s ratings dropped 32% in the two weeks following the election compared to the two weeks prior.

But what about CNN & MSNBC? They haven’t fallen off a cliff yet, but that’s because the people thrilled with the election result — and still nervous about whether it will translate into an actual Biden presidency — are still WATCHING.

Those networks’ ratings WILL drop. The more interesting question is HOW will those channels choose to cover or not cover a former president whom they loathe — but who brought them higher ratings (i.e., financial profit) and who still has a following?

Tonight we got our first indication. The man who will leave the White House in 46 days held a rally tonight in Georgia. Ostensibly it was to help the two GOP Senate candidates who are in runoff elections on January 5 that will decide the US Senate Majority, and thus, if Democrats have any real legislative power for the next four years. The defeated president admitted something that was hugely telling, even for him:

“Y’know, I don’t do these things for other people…I don’t like doing this for other people! David and Kelly called and said: ‘Will you do a rally?’ I said, not really. I did 56 of them in a little tiny period of time. I don’t do them for other people. It’s a lot of work to do a rally.”

I know that the defeated president said this because I was flipping back and forth between college football and FOX News. FOX must still cover him because it now has competition further to the right in the form of Newsmax and OAN. FOX never pretended to be a real news channel, especially in prime time, so it’s an easier decision.

However, notably, CNN & MSNBC did NOT cover the live rally. Have they already decided that this man gets NO MORE of their airtime? Even if morbidly curious viewers — like me for another 46 days — will flip over to FOX?

We don’t know for certain yet; for these two networks have ignored some of his other rallies in the recent past. And you can still make the argument that in spite of all the lies it included, parts of what he says are still newsworthy. A lame-duck president is still president.
The Sunday cable news cycle will be very telling. The quote I transcribed above is a combination of tragic and hilarious — like hundreds of other comments we’ve heard over the last five years. But will it get played over and over tomorrow between national ads that deliver millions in revenue to CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC?
For my part, these are the first words I’ve written about the soon-to-be-former president since the election was called on November 6. But my opinion writing is not the financial driver of my business.

The way that most commercial news editors and producers decide what does and doesn’t get covered has always been a subjective process. It’s one of the reasons I left television news 20 years ago. I disagreed with what they thought should be covered, so I did a documentary about it and then left the business two weeks later.

But it’s not as simple as I made it out to be, because there is an inherent conflict of interest in news divisions owned by corporations. Even PBS eventually put up sponsor billboards to help fund what they do. ALL journalists — print and broadcast — want eyeballs. The question is: How much does that desire — or financial need — rule what gets covered and what doesn’t?

As soon as any major party candidate wins their party’s nomination for president, they immediately become a justifiable national news story. Journalists have an obligation to cover what that candidate (and president, if they win) says and does. This is not done without context, of course, but the point is that they can longer be ignored — no matter what’s coming out of their mouth.

Ordinarily, when a president leaves office, he intentionally becomes reticent. Almost silent. The tradition in modern presidential history is to give the new president a fair shot at running the country without political interference from their predecessor.

We know that this defeated president isn’t going to follow that tradition. Saturday night’s event was the first public rally he’s done since losing the election by 74 Electoral College votes and just over 7 million popular votes. A crushing loss has done nothing to change his M.O. And that will continue.

But the question that remains for American news operations is: How much oxygen will they give this squeaky wheel — knowing that it may cost them a whole lot of consumers and money if they don’t?