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Whenever a new president arrives, Washington returns to the top of the news agenda. Coverage of federal domestic politics — the governing kind, not the electoral kind — always peaks during the first year for a new occupant of the Oval Office.
Over the past quarter-century, the broadcast networks’ weekday nightly newscasts have logged an annual average of 36 hours of coverage (2,171 minutes) on federal domestic policy and politics during an administration’s second and subsequent years. The first year, however, sees 50 percent more time devoted compared with those later years. With his transition, inauguration, first-100-days agenda and newly nominated cabinet, a new president’s opening act usually averages 56 hours (3,330 minutes) of coverage during the calendar year of the inauguration.
So it should come as no surprise that the first few weeks following the election of Donald Trump should see the year’s highest levels of noncampaign-generated political coverage. The arrival of Trump easily outshines the waning days of Barack Obama.
Any president-elect would attract headlines as the news media plays court-watcher, checking who’s up and who’s down as he assembles his administration. This particular one attracts additional scrutiny because of his novelty as a billionaire celebrity and nonpolitician, arriving unschooled in the civic norms and unobservant of the protocols of the corridors of power.
Specifically, what has been unusual so far has been Trump’s confounding mixture of ubiquity, imprecision and opacity. He is ubiquitous in his unrestrained enthusiasm for sharing on Twitter intemperate, unverified, opinionated commentary on anything under the sun. On Nov. 29, for instance, he set the social media platform abuzz by pledging to jail (or revoke citizenship) anyone who burns the U.S. flag. A few days earlier, he tweeted he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of widespread (unsubstantiated) fraud.
Trump also is imprecise in his policy pronouncements: He supports torture unless he’s against it; he’ll repeal the Affordable Care Act unless he endorses its key components; he will build that wall unless it’s a fence; he supports mass deportation of the undocumented unless they happen to be noncriminal. And he is opaque in his insistence on secrecy concerning his taxes, his family business dealings, his conflicts of interest — and his refusal to address such concerns in a news conference.
The astonished attention paid to the ubiquitous components of this abnormal behavior amounts to nothing more serious than the shock of the new. Trump seems destined to become the first president to present newsmaking positions via social media. His late-night tweets, the apparent thin-skinned ease with which he seems to take offense, his fascination with the trivialities of popular culture — Broadway’s Hamilton and Saturday Night Live riffs — will just have to take some getting used to. In time, once the business of governing begins, their novelty will wear off. Journalists will learn not to transform such silliness into matters of state and will assign them to the late-night comics and to the gossips of social media.
As for his imprecision, that turns out to be as much a foundation for his political persona as was Ronald Reagan’s ease with the television camera or Obama’s oratorical fluency with the teleprompter. Trump’s rhetoric originates in reality TV, where he became a star. Everything is in service of the buildup to the climactic revelation that closes each episode. Thus, misdirection, confusion, suspense and contradiction are not the bugs of Trump’s policy pronouncements but their core features. As mystifying as those maneuvers may seem now, journalists will learn, once he has taken office, not to treat those head fakes as genuine news. Only the facts of the actual reveal, at the end of the process, count.
These two lessons — not to pay mind to trivial distractions, not to treat policy head fakes as genuine — will take longer to learn for television journalists than for those working in other media, since television loves to follow the controversy generated by a provocative soundbite. So, for TV news, it might take more than the first 100 days to get out of the habit of following the glittery object that is The Donald in the Oval. TV news executives certainly need to learn a lesson from their ink-stained brethren at The New York Times. Those execs, including CNN’s Jeff Zucker and Fox News’ Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy, thought they were buying access by agreeing to go off the record at their Nov. 21 meeting. Instead, they earned an earful of insults. The next day, the Times insisted on remaining on the record and generated significant pronouncements on policy.
So, sooner or later, the business of politics will reach television, too. A review of the past quarter-century of inside-the-Beltway headlines provides clues about what news of substance the first year of Trump might generate.
Economy: Trump apparently plans a trio of economic initiatives — stimulus spending on infrastructure, tax reform and tariffs on imported goods. The trends of the past 25 years show that TV news will pay scant attention to any of these as long as they are legislative proposals — and full attention if they are proposed in response to an economic recession (1991, 2001) or collapse (2008). The exception to this rule of thumb was 2011, when a Republican House and a Democratic president clashed over the debt ceiling. If a Republican House and a Republican president get into such a fiscal clash in 2017, then that party split is guaranteed to make headlines.
Supreme Court: Nominations don’t make lasting headlines as a rule. It is only when there’s a full-throated confirmation battle that they get intense attention. The last instance was Clarence Thomas in 1991. If Democrats in the Senate mount a filibuster against a Trump nominee in 2017, that would be a repeat of Thomas’ headline-grabbing hearings.
Health Care: Because federal health care affects so many millions of lives — and because it disproportionately affects the middle-aged and elderly demographics that are TV news’ staple — the last two occasions in which Congress debated that issue represented peaks in coverage (Hillarycare in 1993 and Obamacare in 2009). If Speaker Paul Ryan adds the privatization of Medicare to a repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, expect blockbuster coverage.
Besides this trio, other potential Trump initiatives have shown little track record for protracted TV news coverage. Neither illegal immigration nor climate change has been a sustained headline-maker in the past.
As for the third abnormal aspect of the Trump presidency, his penchant for opacity concerning his personal finances and family business could turn into a huge story if he is challenged by Congress. The precedent for this attention represents the exception to the rule of thumb that maximum political coverage is confined to a president’s first year. That exception was Bill Clinton’s 1998 impeachment, which saw a 25-year record of 65 hours of domestic political coverage. For that phenomenon to be repeated, the Democratic opposition first would have to take control of the House, just as Newt Gingrich’s Republicans did in 1994.
Campaign 2018, here we come. All eyes on the midterms.
Tyndall is a news analyst and publisher of The Tyndall Report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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