The Trump Administration’s efforts to make policy and govern while also dealing with its own internal West Wing drama has news media careening, almost daily, down two separate tracks.
Such distractions have burdened all presidencies, but rarely for so long and with such intensity as has been the case since President Trump’s first day in office. A vivid example occurred Wednesday, providing a test of media judgment as well as the president’s ability to manage his message.
Early in the day, Mr. Trump met with leaders of Congress and stunned many in the room and those watching on TV by stating support for gun control measures long opposed by many Republicans and the NRA. In the afternoon, that news seemed to be eclipsed - depending, perhaps, on what sort of glasses you wore to view the eclipse - by the resignation of Hope Hicks, the White House communications director and a key Trump confidant.
How would these stories be covered? Of particular interest were the broadcast networks’ three main evening newscasts, which collectively still reach more Americans than any other news distribution, whether in print, on cable, or online. ABC, NBC and CBS all began their broadcasts with the Hicks story.
My view of so-called mainstream media, having worked in it and watched it, is that there is no significant bias when it comes to hard news. The three legacy broadcast networks in particular strain to be - and, even more importantly in their view, strain to be perceived as - objective. Yet, the pressures of their industry and competition from new media make that increasingly difficult.
Flies on the walls of the three networks’ newsrooms might have heard this Wednesday evening: (a) The Hicks story broke late in the day and is fresh; (b) The president has floated similarly striking positions on such things as immigration before and then later backpedaled; (c) Just hours earlier Hicks conceded to telling “white lies” to protect the president, which could hint at bigger problems for Trump regarding the Mueller investigation, and (d) The NRA and its supporters in Congress have always managed to beat back serious efforts at gun control, making Wednesday’s pronouncements much ado about little.
So, Lester Holt began his NBC newscast by declaring Hicks’ resignation a “bombshell.” On CBS, the graphic read “Hope Gone.” ABC’s David Muir also began with the news about Hicks, failing to report the critical caveat that her “white lies” comment to House investigators was apparently not related to any element of the Russia investigation.
Both stories are big, but I believe the three networks got it wrong. The following morning, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and most other papers, including New York’s brash tabloids, gave the president’s comments about guns their top positions. The Times, which actually broke the Hicks story, ran its report about her on page 17.
White House staffers, most notably Kellyanne Conway, have complained repeatedly that media give too much attention to West Wing drama while under-reporting the administration’s accomplishments. But, for the most part, the White House has gotten in the way of its own message - with poor timing, wholesale leaks, and relentless, often confusing, tweets from the boss.
In this case, what if the networks are right, and the president fails to make good on his promises about gun regulations? Well, that would be a big story in itself, and all the more reason why networks should have signaled viewers Wednesday that what the president said about guns was the biggest news of the day.
Remember, Wednesday’s gun news also included announcements by Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart that they would not sell to persons under age 21, with Dick’s discontinuing its sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. That added heft to the president’s remarks, making them more newsworthy.
As for managing its message, the White House confounded many observers by allowing news of Hicks’ departure to spill out at a time when it was likely to overshadow, or at least compete with, the important declarations about guns.
The nature of the Trump White House will force journalists, for the foreseeable future, to travel down two tracks. But broadcast media look bad on days like Wednesday when news judgment gets derailed.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.