Donald Trump Still Phoning It In To The Media

Networks have typically allowed reporters to call in with breaking news, but not guests doing scheduled interviews.
Trump did three phone interviews on Sunday, but it's unlikely that other Republican candidates would enjoy the same privilege.
Trump did three phone interviews on Sunday, but it's unlikely that other Republican candidates would enjoy the same privilege.
Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Presidential candidates have traditionally flocked to Sunday morning shows during campaign season to make their cases directly to the American people. This past weekend was no exception, as a half-dozen 2016 contenders appeared in TV studios or remotely on camera.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump, however, broke from the pack by speaking on three Sunday programs -- NBC's "Meet the Press," ABC's "This Week," and CNN's "State of the Union" -- but only by phone.

Trump has employed this tactic before, as The Huffington Post examined last month. During one particularly busy five-day stretch in August, Trump did nine phone interviews across broadcast and cable networks, four of which took place on Sunday shows.

CNN "New Day" co-host Chris Cuomo, who has interviewed Trump by phone several times on air, recently described the real estate developer's call-in method as a "strategy."

Though Trump is an experienced television performer, he can better control the conversation when he's not facing his interviewer on camera. It's easier for him to speak over the host to change the subject, or to refer to notes. And he can efficiently knock out several interviews in a row from the comfort of his home or office, dominating the news cycle without even having to get out of his pajamas.

“I think there’s enormous interest in Donald Trump as a candidate,” Mary Hager, executive producer of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” told HuffPost. “I think if he is only available for a phone interview, we need to be able to help our viewers out in understanding him.”

“It’s the Sunday shows responsibility to cover the news,” she added, even if the newsmaker in question will only appear by phone.

Hager said "Face the Nation" is continuing its efforts to get Trump to sit down for an interview, since he's only called in. Though Trump phoned in for “Meet the Press” and “State of the Union” on Sunday, he has also done on-camera interviews with each program earlier in the campaign.

CNN Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist told HuffPost last week that he will always advise news programs to do interviews with the Democratic or Republican front-runner, whether by phone or on camera.

Betsy Fischer Martin, a former executive producer of "Meet the Press" who's now executive in residence at the American University School of Public Affairs, told HuffPost that call-ins were typically reserved for breaking news or overseas dispatches that couldn't be shot on camera. Still, she acknowledged that a front-runner is often "able to call the shots" when it comes to their media appearances.

For instance, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wanted to do all five Sunday show interviews in one day in late September 2007, when she was still considered the Democratic front-runner, Fischer Martin said. The Clinton campaign specified the length of the interviews and requested that they be pre-taped, rather than live. All five Sunday shows complied with those conditions.

But as Clinton struggled in early 2008 -- and presumably, had less leverage with the networks -- the candidate agreed to an hour-long, live interview on "Meet the Press" from South Carolina, Fischer Martin recalled. "It’s unprecedented to do phone-ins," she said. "But it’s not unprecedented for a front-runner being able to negotiate the terms of his interview."

Though Clinton is again the Democratic front-runner and may be permitted to call in when convenient, it seems unlikely that Republican candidates other than Trump would enjoy that privilege.

"Senator Santorum has not been given that opportunity this campaign cycle," a spokesman for GOP hopeful Rick Santorum told HuffPost.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki did call in to CNN one weekday in July to respond to Trump's offensive comments about Mexican immigrants, but he primarily does television interviews on camera. Pataki has not received a single invitation to appear on a Sunday show, even when he'd first entered the race.

"The media establishment doesn't want to hear from a sane GOP candidate who can actually articulate ideas without demonizing a large part of the electorate," David Catalfamo, Pataki's communications director, wrote in an email to HuffPost. "They prefer reality show ratings or sticking to some predetermined narrative about what candidates they think matter."

HuffPost contacted the campaigns of the 11 remaining Republican candidates who have participated in the debates, but they all either declined to comment or did not respond.

Rival campaigns may be reluctant to pick a fight with Trump or appear to second-guess the networks' programming strategies. Or maybe they're just happy when their candidate gets an invite to appear on camera, since, unlike Trump, the rest of the field could benefit from more name (and face) recognition.

Representatives from NBC News and ABC News declined to comment about their booking practices. A CNN spokesperson did not immediately respond.

Hager said no other campaign had requested a phone interview. "Most politicians and newsmakers prefer to appear on camera," she said.

"Fox News Sunday" is the only Sunday public affairs show unwilling to let Trump call in. Still, "Fox & Friends" -- and competitors like CNN's "New Day" and MSNBC's "Morning Joe" -- have allowed Trump to call in several times in this election cycle.

A self-described "ratings machine," Trump has boasted on the campaign trail about his ability to get airtime any time he desires.

"If you get good ratings, they'll cover you even if you have nothing to say," Trump told around 15,000 people last Monday at a rally in Dallas, which was carried live on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

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