On Friday morning, the Trump campaign alerted reporters that he would hold a press conference on the birther conspiracy he spearheaded by calling into question the citizenship of President Barack Obama. With television crews pointing their cameras at the stage in anticipation of his long-awaited retraction, Trump proceeded to parade members of the military in front of the microphone. They sung his praises for 20 minutes, in what amounted to an extended session of free on-air advertising, interrupted only by the interjections of a few exasperated reporters checking the clock, such as CNN’s Jake Tapper, who called the spectacle “political Rick Roll.”
Finally, Trump backpedaled on his outrageous lie (shortly after he told a couple more) in a mere 10 words before departing the stage without taking questions: “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.” All of the major networks carried the press conference, which was useless except for the final 30 seconds. “We got played,” admitted CNN’s John King.
Trump has never abided by the rules of traditional campaign reporting—and he has no need to do so. Why foster trust with the reporters who cover him when he can already rely on endless air-time, without having to pay a cent for an ad? All he needs is a bit of bait—like, say, the promise of a conversation about birtherism—and the media turns the spotlight on him. Reporters have yet to figure out how to best him at this game and find themselves at his whim. As recently as Thursday, he mocked his traveling press corps for being late to his rally and refused to wait for their arrival to start: “I just heard the press is stuck on their airplane. They can’t get here. I love it.” The reporters who cover him daily on the trail were furious, but, after the campaign only recently lifted a ban on many reporters from prominent media outlets, they feel they have no bargaining power.
But they do have a bargaining chip: media exposure. The networks shouldn’t simply hand Trump air time indiscriminately. At the very least, cut away.