Trump and the Equal Time Rule

Donald Trump appearing on an old-fashioned TV set

Donald Trump appearing on an old-fashioned TV set
If you put any credence in the Mueller report and its resulting prosecutions, then you know that Russians interfered with and influenced our 2016 elections. They did it largely by posting bogus news stories on social media in an effort to spread divisive misinformation. But you don’t have to be a foreign hacker to impact the way people vote. In fact, it may very well be that in this Fall’s elections, fake news and fake ads will take a back seat to a much more subtle and dangerous form of manipulation. It’s something I call “leveraged news”, and President Trump is benefitting from it right before our very eyes, and it’s all quite legal.

In 1934, the FCC created the Communications Act, a section of which included the so-called, “Equal Time Rule”, which required broadcasters to give the same amount of air time to opposing candidates. Refusal to comply with the rule could lead to a loss of license. Adherence to the rule would guarantee that a Radio or TV station couldn’t try and influence the outcome of an election by giving exposure to only one candidate. There are, of course, exceptions to the “Equal Time Rule”, those being if a candidate appears in: a legitimate news interview, a documentary, a scheduled newscast, or a live news event. And that brings me to Donald Trump and “leveraged news”.

After spending most of January decrying the Coronavirus as a hoax, and most of February down playing its seriousness, Trump decided to create a pandemic task force just like the one he had dismantled after taking office. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar was supposed to lead the task force, but was replaced on February 26 by Vice President Pence. Why? Probably because a few days earlier, Azar had warned the President about the serious threat of COVID-19 and that the nation needed to lock down, but Trump told Azar he was being an “alarmist”. Writing for the New York Times, correspondent Maggie Haberman opined, “With Mr. Pence in charge, the focus was clear: No more alarmist messages.”

And so, Pence began to hold daily briefings, accompanied by Drs. Birx and Fauci. Their updates were strictly clinical and strategically on point, with no hint of politics. There was no need for Trump to even show up, until, that is, two things got under his skin. First, Dr. Fauci became a media darling and was grabbing all of the attention. Second, with his rallies cancelled, COVID-19 spreading, and Biden’s lead growing, Trump knew he needed more visibility during the crisis. Say what you will about Donald, but the guy has a nose for news, and he stuck it squarely into the daily briefings.

Now, each afternoon, the President comes to the podium and struggles through prepared remarks, then goes on a disjointed rant in which he gives incorrect medical advice, lies about the distribution of PPEs and ventilators, lashes out at Governors and the CDC, and blames everyone from Obama to the World Health Organization for everything. He also brags on himself at every opportunity, and last week even showed a campaign-style video to try and make us believe he had handled the pandemic perfectly. The Wall Street Journal, a paper owned by Trump supporter Rupert Murdoch, said of The President’s daily TV show, “Mr. Trump seems to have concluded that the briefings could be a showcase for him. Perhaps they substitute in his mind for the campaign rallies he can no longer hold.”

And while Trump has been commanding a couple of hours of free airtime every day, Joe Biden is relegated to posting messages from his home, and hoping that the networks will carry them. That begs the question: Aren’t TV stations and networks violating the “Equal Time Rule”? Technically not, because Trump has turned the daily COVID-19 briefings into a “news event”, which is an exception to the rule. That means CNN and MSNBC are not required to give Joe Biden two hours of free air time every day, but it also means they are not required to keep carrying Trump’s daily political “rallies”. So I implore my colleagues to stop airing the briefings live, and, instead, edit together clips of just the crucial medical information, then run those sound bites on a delay basis. Refusal to do so means you are allowing the President to leverage the news in a way that is clearly unfair to his chief political opponent, and to any other down-ballot candidate with a “D” before their name. It also begs the question: Who needs Russia to interfere in secret, when Trump is doing it in plain sight?

 
 

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