Donald Trump’s TV viewing habits have changed since he became president — networks he views as hostile have fallen out of favor, Fox News is in heavy rotation — creating an unusually close relationship between a president and a news outlet.
Long a voracious consumer of cable news, Trump has cut back how much he watches CNN and MSNBC in recent weeks, having sworn off the latter network’s “Morning Joe” after criticism from its hosts, according to a senior White House aide privy to the president’s viewing habits.
Instead, the president now spends hours some mornings watching Fox News, switching occasionally to CNBC for business headlines, along with a daily diet of newspapers and press clippings, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. On the evenings when he doesn’t have a dinner or briefing, Trump will spend most of his TV-viewing time watching Fox News shows hosted by Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, the aide said.
Trump has heartily endorsed Fox News on Twitter and in various public statements, and some of its programming has even influenced his communications with the public, mostly through tweets. Several examples have emerged of Trump apparently seeing something on Fox — crime rates in Chicago, an incident in Sweden — only to tweet about it moments later.
And in turn, all the attention from Trump has coincided with higher viewership. Cable news networks have enjoyed higher-than-normal post-election audiences because of intense interest in the Trump presidency, and Fox News continues to lead the pack. Ratings were up 31 percent in February from a year earlier, with about 3 million viewers watching in prime time.
Fox News is the most profitable network run by 21st Century Fox Inc., Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate, whose shares have climbed 12 percent since election day, a tad above the broader market.
Fox News declined to comment. Bloomberg News, a unit of Bloomberg LP, competes with units of Fox and other outlets in providing news and financial information.
Higher ratings mean Fox News, CNN and MSNBC can charge more for TV commercials. Being the president’s preferred network can add to Fox News’s allure for advertisers.
“If you’re a lobbying outfit, buying commercials on Fox News may be as effective as campaign donations to the right member of Congress,” said Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland.
That’s already happening. In a memo to board members last month, Mark Merritt, president of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a health-industry lobbying group, said his organization may use TV news advertising to directly reach Trump.
“Given the president’s interest in a select number of news programs, PCMA will also explore other forms of advertising that target those particular venues,” Merritt wrote.
Trump’s loyalty gives stars like O’Reilly and Hannity greater influence. Trump has given three interviews to Fox News while president, more than any other network. And Fox, along with Bloomberg, was one of the outlets invited last week to attend a White House press briefing that excluded the New York Times, CNN and others. On Wednesday, “Fox and Friends” aired its recent tour of the Oval Office, hosted by the president.
Trump’s fandom could backfire if Fox News becomes viewed as “the Pravda of the government,” Feldstein said.
Murdoch and Trump have personal ties. The Fox co-chairman’s ex-wife, Wendi Deng, is a friend of Ivanka Trump. Her husband Jared Kushner acted as a liaison between Murdoch and Trump during the campaign, when the future president had a more confrontational relationship with Fox News. In January, Trump tweeted that Murdoch is a “great guy.” Murdoch has been running Fox News himself since last year’s ouster of Roger Ailes, who faced sexual harassment allegations.
It’s not that Trump has closed himself off from all sources of criticism. He continues to read the New York Times daily despite criticizing the newspaper’s coverage of him, the aide said. Trump also reads the Wall Street Journal and New York Post each morning along with press clips that he is given by aides from a range of sources, the official said.
“All networks have aired things presidents have talked about, but it is the regularity of President Trump talking about it or acting upon it even just in a tweet that is unique,” said Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for former President George W. Bush. “You have a big staff as president and the staff should fact-check things and double-check things. The president goes right from watching something on TV to his Twitter account.”
Barack Obama and George W. Bush rarely watched television news. Bush relied heavily on his staff to brief him on media coverage, while Obama would spend hours reading magazines and newspapers on his iPad.
It’s unlikely that Trump has shut out CNN and MSNBC completely. On Sunday, for instance, CNN’s Brian Stelter noted on his show, “Reliable Sources,” that Trump tweeted about a New York Times TV ad eight minutes after Stelter talked about it that morning on CNN.
“A coincidence? Or was he watching CNN? You decide,” Stelter said on air.
CNN’s ratings are up 27 percent this season in total viewers, according to Nielsen.
“From a business standpoint, CNN has never been in a better position,” said John Martin, president of Turner, the Time Warner Inc. division that runs the network. “We haven’t lost an advertiser. The ratings are up very, very large.”
MSNBC, owned by Comcast Corp., declined to comment, as did CNN.
The New York Times has also credited interest in the Trump administration with fueling record growth in digital subscriptions, including 276,000 signups in the fourth quarter. New York Times Co. shares are up 31 percent since election day.
In recent weeks, subjects of Fox News segments have frequently made their way into Trump’s comments. On Saturday morning, Trump asked in a tweet why the media hadn’t been reporting the drop in the nation’s debt since his inauguration. His point, which was criticized by economists, had been made that hour on Fox News by Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, and was the subject of an article by the conservative-leaning website the Gateway Pundit two days before.
At a rally in Florida a week earlier, on Feb. 18, Trump made a confusing reference to a Fox News segment the previous night citing crime in Sweden as evidence of the security threat posed by immigrants when trying to make a case for his immigration ban. The comment drew criticism from Swedish officials who said the Fox News segment inaccurately portrayed the situation in their country.
On Feb. 12, when Trump was at his Palm Beach, Florida, estate, he tweeted data that appeared on Fox News that morning on the percentage of refugees who had entered the U.S. from the countries included in Trump’s executive order on travel. On Jan. 24, he tweeted statistics on Chicago’s crime rate about an hour after they were shown on-screen during “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Trump’s narrowing media focus risks leaving him flatfooted on important developments affecting his administration. When asked by reporters on Feb. 10 about a story that had been published a day earlier in the Washington Post and was being widely reported by CNN about contacts between Russia and his then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump looked confused and said he wasn’t aware of the story and would look into it. Three days later, the report contributed to Flynn’s resignation. The White House said at the time that Trump was preoccupied with other issues that day other than the Flynn story.
“On one hand, it’s always good for a president to have independent sources of information from the hermetically sealed bubble that exists in the White House,” Feldstein said. “But to the extent that he’s getting news from cable television, which isn’t the most reliable source of information, he’s getting pretty distorted information.”
Trump has endorsed morning show “Fox and Friends” to his millions of Twitter followers. He tweeted on Feb. 15: “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!”
He also gave a plug to Fox News in his first press conference. While he blasted reporters and the media, he took note to compliment “Fox and Friends,” calling the people who work there “very honorable” and “the most honest morning show,” at the Feb. 16 event. At the time, he said he has watched CNN’s 10 p.m. show and was very critical of it.
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Shannon Pettypiece, Gerry Smith