Are we going to get Trump TV after all?
It was long rumored that if Donald Trump lost the presidential election, he'd channel his fiercely loyal following of tens of millions of Americans into a new Trump-branded infotainment network. It wasn't hard to imagine. This is a man who has always adored the spotlight and obsessed over the media.
But now that he's president, Trump has grown increasingly frustrated with an antagonistic mainstream media that often portrays him in a negative light. It's no wonder he's increasingly railing against his perceived enemies on Twitter. He's trying to bypass a media he doesn't trust.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that new White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci has suggested a presidential channel for the commander-in-chief. Scaramucci first floated that idea before taking the job last week. The Washington Post report on Scaramucci's arrival — which prompted Press Secretary Sean Spicer's departure — included Scaramucci's outside-the-box thinking at Mitt Romney's leadership retreat in June as its closing anecdote. It was meant as a way of impressing upon readers just how much thought Scaramucci had put into the position.
Scaramucci reportedly proposed a "daily administration broadcast" that would start at 7 a.m. and last for an undetermined length of time. The former hedge-fund operator optimistically proposed that the White House television talk shows would include leaders from the Democratic Party, but it didn't take long to disabuse Scaramucci of that fantasy.
"I like Anthony," an unnamed source told the Post, "but Pelosi and Schumer aren't going on his state-run morning show."
The thought of the Trump administration proposing a state-run television channel echoed around social media and progressive circles, and not without some justification. The Trump team has not exactly excelled at media management, which is one reason why Scaramucci got hired in the first place. An attempt to spend public funds on a "broadcast" channel (more likely a YouTube live-stream) would inevitably be seen as a strategy to evade independent media. On top of that, the lack of skill in handling the press has not been limited to appearances on other media outlets, which is why the White House stopped televising the daily briefings for several weeks, a policy which Scaramucci plans to reverse. The viewing quality of these shows, especially when the effort is sheer self-promotion, would certainly be questionable, and it would take a significant amount of taxpayer funds to match the production quality of other broadcast media.
Even from Trump's point of view, there ought to be no pressing need for such an investment. The White House has at least one friendly national platform with Fox News, where Trump officials and surrogates readily score interviews and sympathetic questions on their morning show Fox & Friends (and Hannity at night). They could just spend more time on that show rather than set up their own, or even invite Fox & Friends to broadcast live from the White House; Barack Obama offered the same courtesy to shows such as NBC's Today at times.
But there is a simpler strategy for controlling the message: Go local rather than national. Obama also used this approach, where the celebrity and power imbalance is significant enough that the questions tend to be less adversarial and the White House can control the topics. Just a couple of days before Scaramucci's arrival, Politico's Hadas Gold reported that the White House had met with local TV affiliates in the Washington, D.C., and New York regions to plan for a closer engagement. Spicer told the Christian Broadcasting Network that they intended to shift their focus to "local and regional outlets and reporters because that is where I think we get the bang for our buck."
If the desire is to build more credibility on social media, outsourcing still works better than DIY media. Obama proved that by meeting with three large-audience YouTube channel stars in early 2015, including Glozell Green, who had made a name for herself by hosting a show from a tub filled with Fruit Loops and milk. Obama got some withering criticism for this choice, but the criticism missed the point of the effort, which was to connect with voters where they were. (It also missed Green's surprisingly tough questions for the president.) Rather than reinvent the wheel, Scaramucci et al could achieve the same ends by inviting established YouTube and/or Facebook Live hosts with large followings to the White House, and still avoid the infomercial/state-run TV dynamic.
In the end, though, that which can be done likely will be, whether it's well-advised or not. Even if White House TV doesn't launch during the Trump administration, another president will embark on it, because it's too easy to do. At some point, frustration with the media will boil over, and someone will pull out the old Andy Hardy line: Hey kids, let's put on a show! Without a doubt it will turn into a bonanza of viewership among the already faithful — with the president's critics bashing this taxpayer-financed Rose Garden infomercial.