The Dream PR Combo: Agency Fox, Product Trump

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

Clients dream of spending as little as possible while getting the most exposure for whatever product they promote. The impossible client dream? Not really. Substitute Fox News Channel (FNC) for the agency and President Trump for the product and the dream becomes a reality.

According to a Nielsen report, FNC again was America’s most-watched basic cable network in 2018, averaging 2.4 million total viewers in prime time, followed by MSNBC, which gained viewers, and CNN, which lost viewers.

The Dream PR Combo- Agency Fox, Product TrumpSo why did the Democratic National Committee say on March 6 that they will not allow Fox News to host any of the 2020 Democratic primary debates, which conceivably might have convinced viewers tired of Trump’s vaudeville-like act to abandon him? Because commentaries by Fox News performers act as if their scripts were written by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (assuming she can write an original  script). Even a multi-million dollar unlimited PR budget couldn’t insure such favorable publicity for a client.

In my opinion, cable political news TV programming is similar to Broadway theatrical productions. Star billing in the performances are President Trump, who often throws away the script, and can’t remember his lines, thus upstaging other performers by ad-libbing. Important feature roles are played by Rudolph Giuliani, whose role is a once respected, but now clownish attorney without credibility for defending Trump and thrashing all anti-Trump actors regardless of the facts and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who plays a person who has been bewitched by the president.

Robert Mueller, Rod Rosenstein and a host of U.S. intelligence officials are the principal antagonists to Trump. Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort originally played Trump’s bodyguards, but their roles had to be refreshed and rewritten in the second year of the performance to conform with Manafort now being in prison and Cohen soon to be behind bars. Mike Pence has a small mostly voiceless understudy role, but is ready to replace the star if there is a script change.

Other feature performers include Sean Hannity of Fox News, as the leading purveyor of pro-Trump sleazy commentary and Rachel Maddox of MSNBC, cast in a leading anti-Trump role. Filling out the company are numerous TV pundits, who provide comic relief with stale and repeated analysis that are almost always wrong, and the TV program anchors and producers, who rely on the major morning print pubs for program content. Numerous “eye candy” hosts, pundits, and TV reporters play important supporting  roles, augmented by the casting of reporters from papers like the New York Times, Washington Post and USA TODAY, who actually know what they are talking about (because their scripts are based on facts). The directing producers are mostly anonymous. Maybe because they are ashamed of what they are directing?

With apologies to Theodore Dreiser, who wrote the famous novel “An American Tragedy” in 1925, what passes for news on cable TV is “The American Tragedy.”

Since dissecting all the political commentary and what passes for news on the cable networks would provide enough examples to fill up the Library of Congress, here are some prime examples of why I believe that cable TV political reporting resembles a show that should close out of town before reaching Broadway.

  • A few cable TV anchors seem exasperated when the Trump surrogates refuse to answer their questions or interrupt opposing viewpoints and anchor’s comments, but keep on inviting them back instead of cutting them off. (The script must not be changed, but should be.)
  • A typical cable TV political report goes something like this: Reporter: “The Trump campaign has said the following (whatever) about whom ever.” A Democratic spokesperson is asked to respond. And cable considers that good journalism. In addition, all of the questions asked are generalizations without asking for the fine print specifics that appear in major print publications, probably   because the cable reporters don’t know the specifics, as Katy Tur showed appallingly on MSNBC’s Oct. 29, 2018, “MTP Daily.”
  • In a discussion about the horrific Pittsburgh synagogue shooting just two days after the tragedy, Ms. Tur said that HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) was an organization that settles Jewish refugees. She made that statement knowing the shooter said that HIAS was one of the reasons for his terrible act. Ms. Tur’s remarks were wrong, nothing unusual on cable news. As the New York Times said in a story on Oct. 29, “Its clients (HIAS) have often been Jews – its first mission was to aid those fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe – but the agency has also helped resettle many other kinds of refugees, including thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians after Communist victories in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.”A simple internet search would have provided Ms. Tur with correct information regarding HIAS. But just as important as her mistake, no correction was made. (On cable, it seems, corrections are never made because it’s correct even when it’s wrong.) Considering the topic and situation this was more than a simple error. It was a horrendous example of not knowing what she, and other, cable reporters do so often – make mistakes without anyone correcting them.
  • Another example of cable TV reporters’ ineptness occurred when MSNBC’s newly-appointed “star,” Kasie Hunt, shouted to Michael Cohen as he emerged from his second day of hearings before a congressional committee and asked, “Mr. Cohen. Why did you lie to Congress?” Certainly that’s not a way to get someone to answer your questions. More important. Ms. Hunt has been covering the story for much more than a year and if that’s the best question she could come up with perhaps she should take a refresher course in journalism 101 (or ask her producers to feed her questions). It was another example of shockingly bad journalism (but who ever said cable news is good journalism).
  • Just when you think cable TV political reporting has hit a low point, along came Ari Melber’s comment on his March 7 “The Beat with Ari Melber,” program, also on MSNBC, during a discussion while waiting for the judge to sentence Paul Manafort. Mr. Melber actually said, I swear, It’s out of the hands of us analysts and observers, as if it mattered to the judge what they said. For those of you who think I’m picking on MSNBC unfairly, I have two responses. 1) One, they deserve criticism, as does Fox and 2) I’m a big fan of Lawrence O’Donnell’s commentary and also tune in Brian Williams’ wrap-up late night news program, both on MSNBC.
  • As they were in predicting a Hillary Clinton victory in 2016, on March 7 cable TV pundits and reporters again demonstrated why viewers should be wary of cable commentary. This time, when after weeks of predicting a lengthy jail sentence for Paul Manafort, a judge sentenced him to 47 weeks.

While the above are examples of flawed (to put it politely) journalism, at least it was an attempt to report accurately without spin, unlike what the programs of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Piro and others on Fox are about. (As a former reporter and editor and someone who taught at the Army Information School and was offered a teaching job at a civilian university), I would grade cable TV political reporting a generous D.)

The above commentators and so many others and occasional contributors on Fox should be given lifetime PRSA memberships. because for Trump, they compose the PR Dream Team.

If I was advising the DNC, I would let Fox News host one of the 2020 primary debates with the follow proviso: Fox interviewers must be limited to Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith, and Brett Baier to insure journalistic integrity during the questioning. (There might be others in the news division of Fox that qualify, but since I’m not a regular viewer of the channel I can’t name them.)

Also, given Fox’s history. a representative of the DNC should be given the opportunity to respond to the expected twisted, biased commentary that will certainly follow the debate and certainly extend into the next day. Doing so is the only way to insure the messages by the Democratic candidates are reported as they said and not reinterpreted by Fox commentators.

To those who say the DNC is trying to muzzle Fox, check past commentary. Opinions vary and should not be limited, but outright falsehoods should be muzzled so voters can cast their ballots based on facts, not fiction.

In the March 8 New York Times, Wallace, who I consider the best interviewer on television, said that by banning Fox News the Democrats are losing an opportunity to spread their message to viewers who they are going to need in order to win in the 2020 election. I believe he’s correct.

In the same edition, Mark Mazzetti, a Times reporter who has been covering the  special counsel investigation, said, “…we really have to be very judicious and careful about not getting out ahead of ourselves, not saying more than we know, not inferring things.” If cable TV political entertainers followed the same rule, their program content would consist of a loop recording saying, “Breaking News.” And that also would be untrue.

(Full Disclosure: I am a political junkie and always have been. My first public relations job was with a political PR firm, where I worked on local, statewide, national and presidential campaigns. When I joined Burson-Marsteller, I worked with political columnists. Thus, I feel that I’m qualified to give an opinion on the state of political reporting today: I believe that television political reporting is as bad as I’ve ever seen it. Network political reporting has largely been delegated to their cable kin, resulting in panel discussions and pundits, who have an opinion about any subject from politics to what other people think, instead of actually having reporters dig for news. On cable TV, The phrase “I don’t know” is equivalent to George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words. Cable beat reporters act like speaking stenographers, repeating almost verbatim what someone tells them.

Their reporting mostly consists of running after a member of Congress for a sound bite. TV political news is similar to a headline on a print story, the exception being people who read print stories learn the facts that make the story. With the exception of Wallace, other Sunday program hosts ask softball questions of guests, with nary a follow-up. In my opinion, cable news has resulted in voters who have scant knowledge of the facts behind the sound bite or comments by hosts or guests made on programs. As a result, falsified opinions are accepted as being true. The result is an uneducated voter. And that’ not good for our country.)


Arthur Solomon -We Have Met The (Publics’) Enemy And It Is UsAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.

 

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