During the campaign, Donald Trump famously conceded that he gets much of his information about world affairs from “the shows.” Incredibly, the impact made on Trump’s thinking by what he sees on television is even more profound now that he’s the leader of the free world.
The latest example was a gem: Trump made a direct appeal to his millions of Twitter followers that they watch a weekend show on Fox News Channel hosted by Jeanine Pirro. Hours later, Pirro began her program by demanding that House Speaker Paul Ryan resign over his botched handling of the health care bill.
It’s one thing to glean facts from cable programs, it’s quite another to use them to send a political message or float a trial balloon. For what it’s worth, the White House insists Trump had no idea what Pirro was intending to say. You be the judge.
Then there was Trump’s explanation for why he claimed Barack Obama ordered wiretaps at Trump Tower. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind,” said Trump, “who was the one responsible for saying that on television.”
The reference was to a commentator, Andrew Napolitano, whom the president had seen on Fox News Channel. The whole thing was so ludicrous that Fox refuted Napolitano’s claims and promptly suspended him.
Trump is not alone in his fascination with cable news: ratings since he took office are up dramatically. In the first quarter of this year, FNC is up 28 percent; MSNBC is up 51 percent, and CNN is up 11 percent.
MSNBC’s jump was the largest, year-to-year, in cable-TV history. CNN, meanwhile, had its most-watched quarter in 14 years. And Fox? Well, it achieved its biggest quarterly increase in the channel’s history, dating back to 1996.
What are we to make of this? For one thing, the daily drama of a flailing presidency makes good theater.
Beyond that, the channel with closest ties to the party out of power usually gains viewers – which is why Fox profited handsomely during the Obama years, and why MSNBC is now a magnet for Democrats frustrated by Trump.
Rachel Maddow’s highly promoted but underwhelming program in which she “revealed” two pages of a Trump tax return drew her largest audience ever: 4.2 million. It helped catapult Maddow into cable’s Top 10 for the first time, but older viewers probably found it reminiscent of Geraldo Rivera’s live examination in 1986 of Al Capone’s empty vault.
Speaking of relating to older viewers, the most engaging discussions of Trump’s affairs are taking place on Don Lemon’s CNN program. The semi-regulars are none other than Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post’s ace Watergate reporter, and Nixon’s Watergate counsel, the remarkably well-preserved and articulate John Dean. Some nights they are joined by the Post’s legendary know-it-all Sally Quinn.
Also worthy in covering DC’s disarray is Brian Williams’ nightly series on MSNBC. Void of the constant whining that spoils the efforts of Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell, Williams does a sharp, no nonsense examination of events, with enlightened guests.
Give Trump credit: he saved Williams’ career. NBC had benched Williams for making false boasts about his coverage of dramatic events, but then gradually allowed him back on cable during the 2016 campaign. Now he’s MSNBC’s most solid citizen.
As for Fox, its diehards, led by Sean Hannity, continue to blast Trump’s critics and defend even his most egregious misstatements. But elsewhere on FNC, anchors such as Shepard Smith are becoming bolder in taking the new president to task.
Even more surprising was a FNC “town hall” recently in North Carolina, hosted by Martha MacCallum. Unlike previous FNC events in which the questions seemed carefully screened to protect Trump, this program featured an articulate audience of Trump critics.
Despite the example set by the president, none of us should rely too heavily on cable channels for hard news. Moreover, we must avoid Trump’s mistake of quoting the opinions offered as matters of fact.
That said, it’s hard to beat cable-TV news these days for prime-time drama and comedy.
Peter Funt can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.