Never before has a presidential candidate been caught in a situation so obscene that members of the news media found themselves struggling with and breaking their own rules to cover it.
The “hot mic” tape of Donald Trump released Friday by the Washington Post revealed a disturbing conversation between Trump and former “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush. After telling Bush about a married women he wanted to, in the crudest terms, have sex with, Trump then bragged about his predatory pursuit of “beautiful women”: “I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Repeating the language Trump used on the tape, Navarro fumed at other pundits, insisting that Republicans should be made to answer for behavior from a man “who’s consistently disgusted” her. Panelist Scottie Nell Hughes, a right-wing journalist, angrily asked Navarro to stop using one word “because my daughter is watching.” Navarro exploded back at her: “Don’t tell me to stop saying ... but you’re not offended when Donald Trump says it!”
Anchor Don Lemon, usually not at a loss for words in contentious exchanges about Trump, was stunned into silence before abruptly taking the segment to a commercial break. Navarro was not there when the show returned. (She later tweeted that she had left after being on TV for seven hours.)
But the ongoing question of how the television media reports on Trump was compounded by the difficult task of accurately recounting his crude conversation in a broadcast media bound to FCC regulation.
CNN broadcast the audio unedited, warning viewers of its vulgar nature. Other outlets, including MSNBC, which is under the same NBCUniversal ownership umbrella as “Access Hollywood,” bleeped the offensive language.
In print, it became immediately clear that this Trump story fell so far outside the boundaries of presidential behavior that it broke the stylebooks. Online, the New York Times ran Trump’s unedited quotes on Friday. The paper’s decision to use the F-word on Saturday’s front page sparked almost as big a reaction as the quote itself.
For the first day of its reporting, the Los Angeles Times chose to edit out the profanity from its articles, while making the unedited video available on its website for readers who wanted to hear Trump in full. Late on Friday, The Times published a full transcript of Trump’s remarks with no redactions. The paper later decided to use the full quotes in all its coverage. The Washington Post, which dropped the footage without bleeps, edited out certain words from its articles while printing others. Many print outlets ran the video unedited on their sites.
As the news broke and filled other cable networks, Fox News chose, initially, to cover the weather. Unlike CNN or MSNBC, Fox — the network whose founder, Trump supporter Roger Ailes, recently resigned under charges of sexual harassment — put coverage of Hurricane Matthew above that of Trump’s taped conversation.
The common refrain that Trump and his offensive behavior is a gift for the rating-starved media may be true, but unlike past presidential candidates who appeared on “Saturday Night Live” or “The Tonight Show,” Trump’s unique boundary-blurring persona — a reality host running for president — has presented the television media with a series of professional dilemmas.
Earlier this year, after stating that it was breaking all business ties with the real estate mogul because of his divisive comments about immigrants, NBC executives invited Trump to host “SNL,” a move that many found objectionable.
“I guess because ratings matter more than brown people,” said “Full Frontal” host Samantha Bee during her monologue following “The Tonight Show” appearance. “Sure, he’s making life palpably dangerous for Muslims and immigrants, but, hey, he’s good entertainment!
Trump hasn’t just forced the media to deal with how to objectively cover the least objective presidential candidate ever, he’s exposed fissures in their ranks.
Fox’s Megyn Kelly exposed a rare break in ranks at the news network when she called out colleague Sean Hannity: “Donald Trump, with all due respect to my friend at 10:00, will go on ‘Hannity’ and pretty much only Hannity and will not venture out to the unsafe spaces these days, which doesn’t exactly expand the tent.”
Hannity then accused her of the unthinkable — supporting Hillary Clinton — before the two appeared to have made up.
Sunday’s presidential debate (if it takes place) will be the next stress test. Certainly Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz have their work cut out for them in what’s likely to be among the most watched presidential debates ever.
The “hot mic” scandal puts the already highly scrutinized position of debate moderator under a hot lens as millions tune in to see if Trump has been a media boon or a just a boondoggle.
Either way, it may be the first presidential debate with a bleep button.
12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about how the Los Angeles Times handled coverage of the lewd comments.
This article was originally published at 6 a.m.