Donald Trump finished his town hall on Fox News on Thursday evening after making another whirlwind of false claims about a wide range of topics — the 2020 election, his trade policy, and his efforts to remain in the presidency to name a few.
The roughly hour-long performance was notable only for its rigid adherence to form: the ex-president spat out mistruths and conspiracies faster than any journalist could respond, not that Fox’s Sean Hannity ever meaningfully pushed back at all.
But the similarities between Mr Trump’s appearances on Fox News and its second-place rival, CNN, a few weeks earlier beg the question: why does cable news keep doing this?
To be sure, the former president is still a ratings bonanza for cable networks. Not as much as he was in 2016, when networks would sit their cameras on an empty podium in eager anticipation of his arrival. But the CNN special netted more than three million viewers for the hour, a win for the flagging network that just saw the unceremonious ouster of a number of high-profile faces under cloud of scandal, including Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo, and Jeffrey Toobin. And the Fox broadcast is likely to do the same, if not better, given the network’s right-leaning audience.
But those ratings come at a cost. At Fox, that cost was literal, in the hundreds of millions, thanks to a settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over claims espoused by the network’s hosts about its machines after the 2020 election. Thursday night’s appearance by Mr Trump swerved into the danger zone momentarily as the former president repeated conspiracies about his election defeat — which he of course claimed was actually a victory — but thankfully for the network’s bosses stayed clear of any direct mentions of the Dominion machine conspiracies, a possibility that would have left Hannity with the awkward choice of correcting his guest or risking a second bruising by Dominion’s lawyers.
And at CNN, the cost comes in terms of reputation. Already under suspicion of being on a rightward slide under the new leadership of Chris Licht, the network was roundly criticised by liberals and even other journalists after a town hall event with the former president weeks ago. In that instance, moderator Kaitlan Collins faced both derision and praise for her attempts to keep Mr Trump tethered to the truth.
Those efforts by Collins were undermined, however, by the basic reality of the situation — a reality that was reinforced by Fox’s display on Thursday. US cable networks have simply not found (or maybe not looked hard enough for) a way to effectively combat the stream of nonsense that Mr Trump can present in real time. Collins and those who follow her only have so much time to make an effective correction of a false claim made to their face before they must move on, for time’s sake — and in CNN’s case, Collins had no way to pull up video or other visuals to aid in her fact-checks, quotes or other evidence that contradicted the ex-president’s positions, or even the opportunity to present contrasting information without facing the jeers of a pro-Trump (and anti-CNN) audience.
Rob Cordry, a former correspondent for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, said on Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show in 2017 that journalists used to go up to his colleagues and say, “God, I wish we could do what you guys do, but we can’t,” referring to the program’s frequent use of videos and other means to provide real-time accountability in response to statements made by politicians highlighted in their show.
That admission, mocked by Cordry at the time, remains at least partially true: fact-checking a politician like Mr Trump in real time on a live broadcast (as compared to the pre-taped Daily Show) is a major undertaking. It requires a small ensemble of researchers on standby with the ability to immediately feed a host, still on air, with the relevant information — not to mention any evidence that must be presented visually to be convincing, which would require networks to have graphics and videos prepped and ready to go before the broadcast, with only their subject’s past presented mistruths as a guide for what to prepare.
It’s a daunting prospect that has only been marginally successful in the past, when more traditional politicians made fact-checking a far easier procedure. In the face of a politician like Donald Trump, journalists covering his latest bid for power will need to find a way for the truth to shine through the nonsense — or risk very real consequences.