Fox News personality Sean Hannity—whose fellow anchor, Megyn Kelly, has been snarled in an epic episode of ugliness with Donald Trump since last week’s Republican presidential debate—is hardly alone in giving abundant unhampered airtime to the reality television star-turned-candidate.
Indeed, in devoting half of his Tuesday night program to a credulous interview with the billionaire real estate mogul—with a second installment of Trump talk scheduled for 10 p.m. Wednesday—Hannity was only doing what every other cable and broadcast outlet has been doing to capitalize on Trump’s uncanny knack for luring viewers.
It’s undeniable that Trump is “a ratings machine,” as he boasted to CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday in an uninterrupted, largely unchallenged 31 minutes of venting and vamping during which he bitterly complained about his “unfair” treatment at the previous night’s Fox News debate and unleashed his infamous comment about “blood coming out of [co-moderator Kelly’s] wherever.”
While it’s easy to dismiss Trump’s immodest attempts to take all the glory for the Fox debate’s record-high 24 million viewers—an unheard-of audience for a presidential primary debate—he surely deserves some of the credit.
It’s also worth acknowledging that The Donald is a traffic-driver for news sites such as The Daily Beast, much as Sarah Palin was in the former Alaska governor’s political heyday, and it’s utter folly to turn up one’s nose at the prospect of more eyeballs.
The question is whether some outlets are willing to trade tough-minded journalism for access to Trump and his ardent audience.
“The story in all its forms—whether you’re talking to him, or about him, or what’s happening to the Republican Party because of him—has enhanced everybody’s ratings for the time they spend on it,” said a longtime news executive who, like several people interviewed for this article, asked for anonymity so as not to risk offending their television competitors or the Trump campaign.
“There are people on the air in this industry who will let him talk just because they knew they get a rating when he’s on their show,” this executive continued. “There are other people who take their job seriously and will question him toughly.”
Trump is, conspicuously, cable catnip.
He has been such a constant presence on CNN—including a mostly friendly half-hour phone interview Tuesday morning with New Day host Chris Cuomo—that he’s becoming this year’s answer to the network’s over-the-top coverage of missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 or, before that, the Carnival Cruise Lines “poop ship” debacle.
Trump has practically taken up residence on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, phoning in regularly to schmooze with his television pals Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, who always address him as “Donald,” not “Mr. Trump,” while he once called and crooned, “Hello, darling”—and they seem to spend a lot of their interview time joking around and laughing with him.
Brzezinski—who stumped the candidate on Monday with a pointed question on whether he supports a mandate for equal pay for women (Trump begged off, saying he’d have to get back to her)—makes no apologies for the show’s welcoming stance.
“If you have the chance to interview the Republican front-runner, don’t you take it?” she told The Daily Beast. “Quite frankly, if the Democratic front-runner, or the second-, third- or fourth-polling Republican—even Jeb Bush, or Marco Rubio, I don’t know—if they wanted to be on our show, we would take them in a heartbeat. We would take them on the phone even.”
As broadcast anchors such as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos of This Week and NBC’s Chuck Todd of Meet the Press learned on their Sunday shows this past weekend, a phone interview with Trump is all but impossible to steer; the host can’t discipline a filibustering or, for that matter, a hard-of-hearing candidate by leaning in and making eye contact, or a crisp gesticulation.
Much of the control rests with the interviewee—a probable reason that Fox’s Chris Wallace has informed Trump’s and other campaigns that their candidates must appear on camera or not at all for Fox News Sunday.
Hannity, who conducted his pre-recorded one-on-one in the ostentatiously marbled, brassy lobby of Trump Tower, the candidate’s corporate headquarters a stone’s throw from Fox News’s midtown Manhattan studios, was not the kind of hard-nosed interrogator to give his guest the third degree.
Instead, while touting the interview as a substantive policy discussion, he let Trump get away with the same bold but vague assertions that he’s been making everywhere else about how he will stop illegal immigration from Mexico and force the Mexican government to pay for an impenetrable wall along the border, replace Obamacare with something really great, and “cherish” women, among other laudable sentiments.
The single most interesting, if dubious, revelation—in response to Hannity’s question about how Trump has managed to evolve from a socially liberal Democrat to a right-wing Republican—was the candidate’s claim that he had been friendly with a similarly-transformed conservative icon, Ronald Reagan.
“I knew him well,” Trump proclaimed. “He liked me. I liked him. He was, like, a great guy.”
Hannity didn’t even ask Trump to back up his assertion that the real national unemployment rate is not 5.3 percent (the official Bureau of Labor Statistics figure) but “more like 40 percent.”
Hannity’s reference to the Megyn Kelly unpleasantness—in which enraged Trump supporters flooded social media with nasty and misogynist anti-Kelly remarks after their hero’s off-color insult—was decidedly veiled.
“The Fox issue is resolved,” Hannity suggested to Trump, who agreed that Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes “called me the other day, and it’s absolutely fine.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, former Fox News personality Glenn Beck offered a more detailed, saltier, and more correct version of the Ailes-Trump phone call on his talk show Tuesday.
“Roger Ailes called Donald Trump and said, ‘Knock it off,’” Beck told his audience. “Donald is not afraid of anybody but Roger Ailes…Donald was not looking forward to a phone call from Roger Ailes. And he gets that phone call, and Roger says, ‘Trump, knock it off. Knock it off.’ This is my guess of what happened.”
A source with knowledge of the phone call laughed and told The Daily Beast that Beck’s version “is pretty close to being accurate.”
Hannity, of course, doesn’t pretend to be a journalist, yet his sympathetic Q&A with the thatch-roofed front-runner was barely distinguishable from some of Trump’s recent encounters with supposedly hard-hitting reporters.
Don Lemon, for one, allowed the candidate to bang on, largely unchallenged, in his trademark stream-of consciousness mix of braggadocio, invective, counterfactual assertions and comradely bonhomie.
“I’m a smart guy,” Trump declared, citing for the umpteenth time his studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Charles Krauthammer, a Trump detractor, is “a real jerk,” the candidate claimed. Republican pollster Frank Luntz, whose post-debate focus group on Fox News indicated that Trump was losing support, is “a dunce,” “a dope,” and “a wise guy,” Trump said.
Megyn Kelly, meanwhile, “is a lightweight”—an assertion Lemon mildly countered, arguing to his guest that she’s “a very respected journalist,” although the CNN anchor didn’t call Trump on his ungentlemanly “blood out of her whatever” snipe.
Toward the end of the interview, Trump told Lemon, “You guys are making a lot of progress thanks to me, because your ratings are way up, because you’re covering Trump all the time. So I should get a piece of it, don’t you think? Like 25 percent?”
At which Lemon chuckled agreeably and responded that while he couldn’t strike that deal, “you’re welcome to come cohost with me anytime.”