Trump Is Putting a Christian News Outlet on the Map: "You Have People That I Love"
Presidential surrogates have been frequent guests on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network, which is staffing up in D.C.
As Donald Trump wages war against "fake news," his administration has been elevating friendlier conservative media to fill the void.
One outlet getting more White House attention? The Christian Broadcasting Network, an organization dedicated to preparing "the United States of America and the nations of the world for the coming of Jesus Christ."
While CBN News has had a Washington, D.C., bureau since the 1980's, the office was recently renovated and 10 staff positions — including correspondents, videographers and producers — have been added since Trump's election.
CBN founder Pat Robertson interviewed Trump on July 12, in what CNN noted at the time was the president's first non-Fox News interview in two months. Trump said he's mistreated by the mainstream media, but, he told Robertson, "As long as my people understand. That's why I do interviews with you. You have a tremendous audience. You have people that I love."
The network's flagship show is The 700 Club, which airs weekdays on Freeform. CBN claims that show has an average daily audience of one million American viewers. Programming is streamed online on CBN's website, which comScore said attracted more than one million U.S. multi-platform unique visitors in June. CBN shows also air around the country on local television networks.
The goal is for CBN News to have a larger footprint in the nation's capital, and Gordon Robertson, Pat's son and CBN's CEO since 2007, tells The Hollywood Reporter that "it now just seems to be working. He adds: "We seem to be getting the big guests."
CBN News chief political correspondent David Brody, who conducted one of the first in-office interviews with President Trump, says that First Daughter Ivanka Trump has agreed to an interview, though the date and format have yet to be determined.
"CBN has tremendous reach and I think David does an excellent job," former White House press secretary Sean Spicer tells THR, a few weeks before he's slated to formally leave the administration.
CBN News, like a CNN, covers hard news about politics and policy, but does so from a biblical perspective, focusing on issues like abortion and religious freedom. CBN White House correspondent Jennifer Wishon says her experience in the briefing room has changed dramatically in the first months of the Trump administration. She rarely was granted questions during Obama-era briefings, but now she gets "too many to count."
The president was responsible for getting Wishon an early briefing question, she explains. "That was me," she says Trump told her. "It was frustrating during the Obama years that people like me would sit in the briefing room every day knowing that we wouldn't get called on that day, maybe not that week, maybe not that month," Wishon elaborates.
On July 31, Wishon broke a story about a "Trump Cabinet Bible study" that hit CBN's sweet spot and got prominent billing in the next morning's Politico Playbook newsletter, a must-read for the politics and policy community.
Another one of CBN's breakout stars? Jay Sekulow. A longtime guest on the network, the attorney joined the president's legal team in June and has since become a ubiquitous presence on cable news, often trotted out by the administration to explain the inexplicable. Sekulow made his name as a lawyer for the Christian right and has long served as the chief counsel of a law organization founded by Robertson. "Jay doesn't pull any punches, and he's kind of channeling Trump in a degree, so it seems like a match made in heaven," Brody said.
When CBN News has a Trump administration guest, some of the interview questions might strike someone unfamiliar with the network as unusual. "We get a question all the time on Facebook, to you specifically," Brody told Spicer during a July 19 interview. "It's a question from folks out there, they want to know how they can pray for you."
Because CBN sees the mainstream media as uninterested in serving a Christian audience and unwilling to treat the administration fairly, the network’s talent goes easy on the guests they book. When White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared on Aug. 2, Brody said to her: "Here's some breaking news for you: I'm not going to ask you about Russia right off the top. What do you think of that?" Sanders responded: "I like it. We're off to a good start already."
Despite having multiple entry points, the network's reach in the U.S. is still a fraction of bigger cable news outlets. "Nobody I know watches CBN," says Kirby Wilbur, a conservative radio host. "I suspect they have a limited audience, mostly people somehow connected to Pat from his political days in the 80's and 90's. I'm sure they believe that having figures from Trump world, both personal and political, will help build credibility and audience while Trump world looks at it as reaching out to part of his base."
As a non-profit organization, CBN is funded by donations, and Robertson says that he's not too concerned about ratings. "I think most cable networks are seeing double-digit declines in audience, and Freeform is part of that universe," he explains. He pointed out that 90 percent of CBN's audience is outside the U.S.
Robertson was more modest than Brody in assessing CBN News' enhanced status. "I think the access has been there with previous administrations," Robertson said. "I'm not sure that the recognition has been there."
While some media executives, including Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy, are known to be informal Trump advisors, Gordon Robertson claims that he and his father have not played that role. "Dad has a saying that free advice is worth what you pay for it," he says.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.