When two of the major broadcast networks—CBS and ABC—broke into their regular programming Monday to carry live portions of President Donald Trump’s largely false musings after his official nomination, departing from their announced policy of giving only a hour of daily airtime to each party’s political convention, the Biden-Harris campaign was not amused.
Indeed, operatives for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were fuming Monday about a perceived lack of fairness in which the nation’s major television outlets permitted Trump—in an ominous echo of the 2016 campaign in which the former reality-TV star received an estimated $2 billion of free airtime—to manipulate the media to his advantage.
“It did not go unnoticed,” Biden-Harris campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in a relatively diplomatic statement to The Daily Beast. “Last week, the networks broadcast roughly half of the DNC’s programming. If they plan on using the public airwaves to give the RNC more airtime, I hope they’ll explain to the public why that is.”
Ducklo registered his complaint even though not all Democratic activists, both inside and outside the Biden-Harris campaign, believe that the more Trump appears on television, the worse off he’ll be as Election Day approaches.
New York Magazine’s West Coast Vulture correspondent Joe Adalian summarized the objection in a tweet: “CBS News on #DNC2020: We will limit coverage to one hour in primetime, then not actually air anything but a couple speeches. CBS News on #RNC2020: We will interrupt daytime schedules to let Trump speak unfiltered because live speeches are news but taped content is propaganda.”
Neither CBS, which broadcast around 20 minutes of Trump’s 53-minute venomous and lie-filled stream-of-consciousness, nor ABC, which aired around 7 minutes of the president’s rant, were willing to respond to Ducklo’s demand. NBC, meanwhile, carried a live snippet of the delegate roll call that put Trump over the top, but not his speech in which he spun fact-fee fantasies about the alleged fraudulence of mail-in ballots, a rigged election, and fake news, among other egregious whoppers. (Separately, both networks did carry Biden’s speech announcing Harris as his running mate, which constituted free airtime before the conventions.)
While CBS offered a soupcon of fact-checking by CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell and chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett before signing off, ABC did zero fact-checking; instead anchor Diane Macedo let Republican consultant Alex Castellanos spin his on-air take on Trump’s “need to put the spotlight on the Democrats [and] go back and redefine Joe Biden.”
The cable networks were generally sharper and more critical. While Fox News was true to form, airing Trump’s rant without much pushback, CNN and MSNBC were withering.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper cut away after around 20 minutes, telling viewers that Trump “Started off falsely attacking mail-in voting… He also criticized the media for airing [Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s] hearing instead of his roll call. He falsely accused Democrats of wanting to shut down the country to hurt the economy and somehow help them at the ballot box. Unclear how angering the entire country by shutting down would help them at the ballot box.”
MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, after his outlet aired the whole rant, said: “What we have just heard from the president was a grievance-filled informal acceptance speech that was filled with so many made-up problems with mail-in voting that if we were to air just the truthful parts we could probably only air maybe a sentence.”
A highly-placed insider in the Biden-Harris campaign—which, 71 days before Election Day, has consistently been polling ahead of Trump both nationally and in battleground states—told The Daily Beast: “We’re in a comfortable place and I don’t think we expect them [the networks] not to take him, but we expect them to do it in a responsible way. However, if networks are expanding their coverage from the one hour in prime time they gave to Democrats last week, we would have an extremely serious problem with that.”
This operative added, however, that the demand for parity in airtime is not the same as saying that more airtime for Trump will necessarily advantage him over Biden.
Unlike in 2016, when the cable networks, especially CNN, aired Trump’s rallies live as a ratings-grabbing if occasionally toxic confection of politics and entertainment, “the formula of more Trump equaling a good outcome for him is not accurate this time around,” this operative said. “Networks took his coronavirus briefings in March and April that were filled with misinformation and bluster, and his support began to plummet. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the more people hear his unhinged chaos, the less people like it.”
This view echoed that of President Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe, who tweeted on Monday: “Give him all the airtime he wants. 24/7 would be ok. Rarely has someone done that much political damage to themselves just by opening their own trap.”
Former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville, meanwhile, called Trump’s speech “the 24,092nd data point that he’s crazy. He’s desperate. He’s seeing that he’s going down; he doesn’t have confidence in anybody and he thinks he can talk his way back into it. He’s just a desperate guy who thinks he can talk his way out of the gallows.”
A prominent cable-news staffer predicted that “there will be more uncomfortable moments of awkwardness” for executives and producers as the Republican convention unfolds this week, while a top executive told The Daily Beast: “We’re between a rock and hard place when the president of the United States” speaks, outlets worry that not airing his remarks live will miss something newsmaking.
However, this person did predict that Trump “is going to try from now until Election Day, for the next 71 days in a row, to be in front of live cameras as often as possible—with nobody really knowing what the plan is or what he’s up to. And what we should do is not take it. We’ll see.”