To cut Trump off or let him rant: That is the question facing broadcasters

Donald Trump

TORONTO — Deciding on the fly whether to air in real time U.S. President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of election fraud is a tricky dilemma that defies easy solutions, broadcast journalists and observers said on Friday.

Differing approaches were apparent on Thursday, when some networks simply cut away from covering Trump’s invective from the White House, while others stayed with his statements but offered real-time disclaimers.

CNN, for example, opted for the latter approach as did CBC News.

“It ain’t easy. These are really tough decisions to make in the moment,” Brodie Fenlon, CBC’s editor-in-chief, said in an interview. “You have a guy who is still the president and at a moment when he is still potentially competitive, and his words matter as we see and they still have an effect on the ground.”

As Trump spoke, CBC called him out in real time with banners underneath such as: “Without evidence, Trump again claims voter fraud” and “Trump has falsely claimed mail-in ballot voter fraud for months.”

In the U.S., the main networks all abruptly cut away from Trump. Among them was Fox and NBC.

“We have to interrupt here, because the president has made a number of false statements, including the notion that there has been fraudulent voting,” NBC’s Lester Holt said. “There has been no evidence of that.”

Fredericton-based media ethicist and author Stephen Ward said cutting off Trump was the right approach. The media, he said, have been slow to respond to the challenge the president poses with his propensity for outright lying.

“To allow him to abuse his power to spread lies and claims without evidence at this sensitive time for American democracy,” Ward said, “is to fail to adopt journalism’s primary political value: to promote evidence-based and informed views about major events, and to limit the impact of people who wish to spread lies, fear, or misinformation.”

The media should give Trump some coverage regarding his views on the vote, Ward said, but they should also not hesitate to cut away if it becomes clear that he’s simply manipulating the media and making claims that have no factual basis.

“The media should have been treating Trump in this critical manner a long time ago,” Ward said. “Journalism should not be in the business of disseminating misinformation for private and political gain, even if the speaker is the president.”

That Trump is the president is precisely what makes the question of giving him a platform so tricky, said Mark Bulgutch, a former senior executive producer with CBC television news and veteran of political coverage. Bulgutch, who was watching CNN, noted the differing approaches and said he was torn about the right one.

“He’s the president of the United States and there’s enough residual respect for the office in me that says, ‘Boy, it’s hard to turn away from the president of the United States’,” Bulgutch said. “On the other hand … are we going to turn over our airwaves for a speech full of lies and give him a platform to spew that out?”

At the same time, Bulgutch said as an adult viewer, he wanted to see what Trump had to say at a historic time. Even with immediate descriptions of what he had said and why he had been cut off, viewers might wonder why they couldn’t have seen for themselves and what the media were hiding.

Bulgutch said he could not recall a similar example in Canada, though he noted the networks once refused former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty a prime-time spot because they didn’t feel it was important enough.

CBC recently came under fire when it cut away from a protest in New York City just before a police cruiser drove into a crowd of demonstrators. Fenlon, however, said it was an “innocent error:” A teleprompter failure led to a quick decision to stop the coverage.

With it looking increasingly likely that Democrat challenger Joe Biden will become president-elect, questions about how to cover a flailing Trump will persist. All seem to agree, however, that fact-checking and calling him out if he lies is imperative.

“We do take it seriously. We’re going to adjust based on how events unfold,” Fenlon said.