Watching morning and afternoon cable news in the run-up to Tuesday night’s presidential address to Congress, it was all about theme and possibility. “The theme is going to be the renewal of the American spirit,” MSNBC’s Kristin Welker said to Andrea Mitchell. The tone of tonight’s Trump speech? “Again and again, we’ve been told it’s going to be optimistic,” said Jeff Zeleny on CNN. “The word we keep hearing over and over from the White House is ‘optimistic,’” said Kristin Fisher on Fox News. And what might Trump be optimistic about? “He’s going to talk about his vision for repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Welker said. Whether there was any proof that the president’s vision was anything more substantial than what we’ve been hearing — “It’s gonna be beautiful”; “It’s gonna be terrific” — was left unanswered.
The channels were clogged with politicians who couldn’t wait to give anchors their soundbites — former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty jabbered eagerly to MSNBC’s Kate Snow that the Trump he expects to see tonight will be “less Mad Max, more Ronald Reagan.” Ooh, clever, Tim! CNN, of course, loves to assemble a panel to fill its airtime, and this afternoon was no exception. Presiding over one in the noon hour, John King said tonight “is a big opportunity [for Trump] to talk more specifically” about his plans for America. Apparently, he’s never heard a Trump speech before. On the panel, Ashley Parker of the Washington Post said, “I think this will be — at least I hope it will be — a teleprompter speech.” There were knowing chuckles all around. Me, I wanted to barf on her behalf. Can you imagine any news professional saying hopes are high that Barack Obama will be willing to read off a teleprompter? How the standards have tumbled, so quickly.
It’s been striking how little cable news has changed in the era of Donald Trump. It’s covering President Trump the way it covered President Barack Obama in the early days of his presidency: comparing Trump’s campaign rhetoric to what he’s said and done thus far as president. There is no acknowledgment that what Trump says is contradicted by what Trump says just a bit later. He’s been doing it since he began campaigning, and he did it on Tuesday morning on Fox & Friends, whose exclusive interview with Trump was replayed in snippets and parsed exhaustively by CNN and MSNBC. Of all the afternoon cable news programming, Jake Tapper on CNN has the most consistent record, during his daily show, The Lead, of pointing out contradictions, obfuscation, and lies regarding facts, with Fox’s Shepard Smith just behind him.
But for the most part, Fox News, as the favorite child of the president, wants to keep pleasing Daddy, and therefore never suggests that anything is amiss with Trump. CNN and MSNBC, however, refuse to understand Trump, and to acknowledge (at least on the air) that he’s going to say whatever he thinks will sound great and fabulous in the moment, and then contradict himself and allow the Republican party to lay down the real laws. It’s dismaying, to put it mildly. (I’m not talking about prime time. On MSNBC’s primetime schedule, Chris Hayes conducts shrewd policy analysis and Rachel Maddow does some valuable connect-the-dots reporting.) Get ready for more of the same willful misunderstanding after the president delivers his speech in the post-analysis chatter tonight.