President Donald Trump’s administration has found yet another way around the mainstream media, this time with a news video released on Facebook. Nicknamed "Trump TV," the mock broadcast essentially operates like Trump’s personal Twitter account, sharing the news he (or in this case, his staff) cherry picks for his followers.
Kayleigh McEnany, newly appointed spokesperson for the Republican National Committee, hosted the most recent video, which has more than 1.7 million views on Facebook after only five days online. The video recapped the news of the week--in cable news, talking head style--showing the Trump administration in a good light.
And with a final jab at the mainstream media, McEnany ended the broadcast with "and that is the real news."
While the video was mocked as authoritarian propaganda in many media circles, communications experts say it is another example of a White House going straight to its supporters with favorable news, a strategy used by presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. Trump TV is funded by Trump’s reelection campaign and run by Lara Trump, wife of Eric Trump, herself a former producer at Inside Edition.
"From day one, [the Trump administration] always tried to go around the mainstream media," said Dan Scandling, senior director of public affairs at APCO Worldwide and a former Capitol Hill aide to Republicans such as former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA). "It’s not out of the ordinary; it’s the way politicians and everyone else communicates these days. He wants to get his message out to his base, and they believe what he says more than they believe the mainstream media."
Scandling says the propaganda comparison was "absurd," adding that political campaigns have used similar tactics for eons.
"Trump TV is simply another iteration of what we’ve seen historically," explains Leonardo Alcivar, MD at Targeted Victory and a former comms aide in President George W. Bush’s administration and the RNC. "Whether it is FDR’s fireside chats, JFK embracing the role of television to get beyond the beltway, or Barack Obama modernizing the White House video and online comms efforts to get beyond the beltway and to communicate its goals."
Much more recently than Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats was Obama’s West Wing Week, a web series launched in 2010 that followed the president behind-the-scenes. Dag Vega, MD at Burson-Marsteller and former director of broadcast media for the Obama administration, compared the two video tactics.
"Every savvy political operation has to take every opportunity to communicate with the public directly," he says. "West Wing Week documented President Obama’s presidency through behind the scenes footage and unscripted moments. This model is different, the look and feel is very traditional. It relies on direct to camera, the traditional network news anchor model, and doesn’t rely on the president himself as part of its storytelling. I’m not surprised each office will have a different way to do that."
Trump is taking a traditional way of sharing his message with the news-like video, while Obama turned to less conventional outlets like late-night comedy shows, Between Two Ferns, and BuzzFeed videos, as well as West Wing Week, Vega notes.
Social media is a natural way to get the message out, with more than half of Americans getting their news there, he adds. Trump proved throughout the 2016 election campaign that he has a good handle on how to use social media to reach his followers.
However, the challenge for Trump TV is building any kind of credibility beyond his base, and the tactic of cherry-picking the news isn’t likely to win any new followers, Alcivar says. Trump has only a 36% approval rating, according to the most recent Gallup poll and 60% of respondents to a recent Quinnipiac poll said they don’t believe the president tells the truth.
"The challenge here is the administration has such a credibility problem relative to its comms operation that there is a disproportionate number of skeptics among those who would otherwise be open to this open to this approach," he continues.
Another danger of cherry-picking the news, Alcivar says, is leaving out topics that are important but not necessarily positive, like touting job numbers but ignoring the escalating tensions between the U.S. and North Korea.
However, a quick perusal of the comments under the video shows that Trump’s core base of followers is dedicated to his cause and supports him taking the news into his own hands to get around the media.
"It reached millions of people," Scandling says. "Any campaign would love to be able to have that access. [The campaign] is only getting its side of the story out and doesn't have to worry about it being fair and balanced."