Taking Trump off air is not the answer

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When Donald Trump took to the stage last Monday after his historic victory in the Iowa Republican caucuses, he struck a relaxed, disarming tone. He spoke fondly of his late mother-in-law (whose home cooking, he joked, had fuelled 17-year-old Barron Trump’s towering height); he called his rivals “very smart people, very capable people”; he repeatedly stressed how important it was for Americans of all political persuasions to “come together”.

This was the breezy, confident demeanour of a man who — having just won more votes than all his opponents combined in Iowa, a feat no Republican presidential hopeful had previously managed — knew he was well on his way to securing the nomination, and quite possibly the presidency. And yet not all cable news viewers would have been able to judge the tone of his address, because not all of them were shown it.

“At this point in the evening, the projected winner on the Iowa caucuses has just started giving his victory speech,” primetime MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told the camera, without using Trump’s name or showing the footage. “We and other news organisations have generally stopped giving an unfiltered live platform to remarks by former president Trump,” she continued. “It is not an easy decision, but there is a cost to us as a news organisation of knowingly broadcasting untrue things.” CNN, meanwhile, cut away from Trump’s speech when he began to mention the crisis on the US border with Mexico.

This is no way for news organisations to behave. First, it is not their job to try to protect viewers from “untrue things” — it is to report the news. After all, the line between what is and isn’t true is not always immediately clear. How could a network, therefore, be “knowingly broadcasting” them before they have been uttered? And if the risk of untrue statements being aired is so great, how could they stream anything live ever again?

Second, it is patronising to treat viewers as incapable of making up their own minds. Most viewers want to be given the whole story: in a 2022 Pew Research survey, more than three-quarters of Americans said journalists should strive to give all sides of the political spectrum equal coverage. In the same survey, however, just 44 per cent of American journalists held this opinion, with younger journalists in particular — 63 per cent of the under-30s — saying every side did not deserve equal news coverage.

Third, refusing to air Trump’s speeches is not only ineffective — increasing numbers of people get their news from social media clips rather than from cable news — but also counterproductive: censoring Trump on one platform simply drives viewers to seek news elsewhere. All that does is make the news landscape even more polarised than it is already, with the likes of CNN and NBC on the left seeming to exist in a different world from Fox News and Newsmax on the right — an issue that nearly three-quarters of Americans believe to be increasing divisions in the country.

Refusing to air a victory speech from a man who might very well be re-elected president in November only serves to further corrode trust in the mainstream media (or “MSM”), which is already around all-time lows. As former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee posted on X about the incident, “the reason most of us have zero trust in the integrity or objectivity of MSM is [because] of this right here. When they fabricate their stories and hide stories and [people] they don’t like, they are the enemy of the people.”

Trump himself used it as an example of “how corrupt the press is” when he spoke to a crowd in New Hampshire the following night. “NBC and CNN refused to air my victory speech . . . because they are crooked, they’re dishonest!”

Trump’s surge in popularity is not despite his four criminal indictments, 91 felony counts, scowling mugshot and the mounting chorus of official “warnings” about the danger of a second Trump term, but because of these things. He has become an anti-hero. Despite his enormous wealth and privilege, he has convinced many ordinary Americans that the system is rigged against him just as they feel it is rigged against them.

Many commentators, opponents and diplomats are warning that a second Trump presidency would be much more authoritarian than his first, and that he poses a serious threat to liberal democracy. But legitimate though these concerns might be, Trump and his followers cannot simply be wished — or censored — away.

If there is any hope of beating Trump, it is not by treating him as a deplorable whose words cannot be aired on television. It is by acknowledging where he is right, showing where he is wrong, and coming up with some kind of credible alternative.

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