If President Donald Trump was looking for free airtime for his racist new campaign video, he failed on several fronts.
On Wednesday, the president tweeted a video about an immigrant who boasted about killing multiple police officers. Openly appealing to racist fears—in a fashion reminiscent of the infamous “Willie Horton” ads used by Republicans in the 1988 election—the video falsely pinned the killer’s residence in America on Democrats, and suggested that many asylum seekers and immigrants are violent criminals.
The president likely expected the clip to generate viral coverage among mainstream media, giving his latest stunt unlimited airtime and bringing his hard-line immigration policies to the forefront ahead of next week’s midterm elections. But according to a survey of the major cable-news networks, using television-monitoring service TVEyes, most of the channels largely ignored the video.
Even the dedicated Trump boosters at Fox News—where such an ad would be seen as red meat for the network’s overwhelmingly conservative viewership—barely touched it.
For years, the network has run segments demonizing immigrants by highlighting individuals who have committed violent crimes. And while Fox spent much of this week hyping Trump’s often-conspiratorial warnings about the asylum-seeking migrants traveling through Central America towards the U.S. border, the network seemingly overlooked his nakedly racist ad.
According to TVEyes, Fox News only played the ad once with audio, and another time as a setup for a segment bashing the critics of the president’s rhetoric on immigration.
MSNBC, too, barely covered the ad. According to TVEyes, the network played snippets of the ad three times, giving it just under one minute of total airtime.
By comparison, CNN gave Trump’s stunt video a more substantial amount of coverage.
In the two days since the president posted the ad, CNN aired the clip with its audio at least 19 different times, totaling more than seven minutes of free airtime for the video between the network’s normal programming and reruns.
The racist ad served as a déjà vu moment for the cable-news networks that faced criticism for their willingness to allow Trump—a former reality-TV host known for dramatics—steer the political-news narrative during the 2016 campaign, breathlessly cutting away from normal news programming to cover his every word.
In the aftermath of the election, media critics admonished the big cable outlets for allowing Trump’s most outlandish, incendiary, or outright false statements to be given free airtime, often repeated ad nauseam and unchallenged.
In the case of Trump’s anti-immigrant ad, however, Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple said CNN’s coverage of the ad was actually appropriate.
He noted to The Daily Beast that the network repeatedly couched their coverage by labeling the ad “racist”—a descriptor many journalists have shied away from in light of the president’s incessant attacks on outlets that give him unfavorable coverage.
When covering overt racism from the president, Wemple said, it is “important to acknowledge that this is hard” as the American media faces an undeniably unusual situation with an unusual president.
“This is unprecedented in terms of the level of hatred and the amount of falsehood and the amount of lies,“ Wemple explained. “The media is starting from a position of weakness and bewilderment and cluelessness. The whole system has long operated on an underpinning of good faith and a common set of facts. Now that we’re unmoored from that, the media does not have a lot of great options.”
Indeed, some cable-news anchors approached Trump’s video with hesitation.
News anchors like CNN’s Chris Cuomo and MSNBC’s Ari Melber played only a portion of the racist ad while expressing their reticence to do so. CNN prime-time host Don Lemon played the clip multiple times, but ran a chyron calling the video “racist,” and said the video “shows just how willing this president is to use lies and scare tactics to terrify his base.”
CNN midday anchor Jake Tapper dubbed the video “propaganda,” and in a video package, overdubbed the clip with his own commentary pointing out how very few Republican lawmakers have condemned the ad.
Meanwhile, several news anchors made it a point to not to play the video at all.
Both CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and MSNBC’s Katy Tur discussed the ad’s contents on-air, but declared they would not show it.
“The president tweeted today a clearly racist video, I am not going to play any of it,” Blitzer said. “It is pretty disgusting.”
Over the past month, the president has managed to make his border policies the focal point of the 2018 midterms by injecting racially tinged or conspiratorial anti-immigrant rhetoric into the media bloodstream.
Whether the result of Trump and his allies’ unfounded claims that the migrant caravan is hosting “Middle Easterners,” criminals, terrorists, or diseased individuals, the president’s various remarks about the asylum-seekers have generated substantial media coverage of the caravan, creating a “crisis” over a group of people roughly 1,000 miles away from the U.S. border.
According to Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog group, both The New York Times and The Washington Post have produced at least 115 news stories about the caravan. Twenty-five of those stories have been prominently featured on the front pages of the papers.
And earlier this week, Trump told Axios that he would use an executive order to end birthright citizenship. While the constitutional guarantee of birthright citizenship could not possibly be ended in such a manner, many major news organizations simply blasted out Trump’s claim without any fact-checking or overt skepticism.
In a similar stunt, the president on Thursday gave a “major address” on immigration policy that turned out to just be a fiery rant about asylum and the border. While MSNBC avoided carrying the stunt speech at all, Fox News aired it in full and CNN aired a portion before cutting away.
“We brought out that speech live because we were told by the White House that the president would be introducing a new proposal, a new policy when it came to asylum. That's not actually what happened,” Tapper, the CNN anchor during that hour, explained.
As Wemple noted, Trump’s penchant for grotesque, fact-free, and often reality-TV-like stunts has posed a challenge to news networks in how to cover the most powerful political office in the world.
As this week proved, they are still working out the kinks.