US media split on Trump reflects divided nation

WASHINGTON (AFP): Americans tuning into the Donald Trump drama faced alternate TV realities: a candidate persecuted by a “wannabe dictator,” according to Fox News — or a man so “dangerous” that he didn’t deserve airtime over at CNN.

The split screen treatment of the former president and Republican 2024 frontrunner after his appearance before a Miami federal judge on criminal charges Tuesday reflected divides right through US society.

To the right-wing media-sphere, as for most of the Republican Party, President Joe Biden, not Trump, is the man who should be hauled into court.

Not only do Republicans and their media backers — including the powerful Fox News network — play down allegations that Trump broke multiple laws in illegally hoarding top secret national security documents at his Florida estate.

They portray the entire case as concocted to stop Trump from challenging Biden in next year’s presidential election.

“Wannabee dictator speaks at the White House after having his political rival arrested,” read a Fox News strapline, or chyron, under split footage showing Biden and Trump shortly before 9:00 pm Tuesday.

One side featured Biden speaking at an unrelated White House event. The other showed live coverage of Trump at his golf club in New Jersey, where he regaled adoring supporters with his conspiracy theories about being a victim of injustice.

But over on CNN and the clearly left-leaning MSNBC, that incendiary New Jersey speech didn’t get aired live at all.

“Frankly, he says a lot of things that are not true and sometimes potentially dangerous,” star CNN anchor Jake Tapper told viewers.

– Ethical challenges for media –

The news importance of Tuesday’s events was obvious.

A former US president has never before been ordered to stand trial on federal charges. The fact Trump is also his party’s 2024 frontrunner raises the shocking possibility of a nominee seeking the White House under threat of a prison sentence.

Trump pleaded not guilty to 37 criminal counts stemming from his taking classified documents — on nuclear programs, Pentagon attack plans, and intelligence on foreign adversaries — when he left the White House in 2021, followed by alleged obstruction of official attempts to recover the papers.

But Trump media coverage can be a poisoned chalice — often a huge ratings boost, filled with ethical challenges.

On Wednesday, Fox acknowledged it had made a misstep. “The chyron was taken down immediately and was addressed,” the network said in a statement to US media.

However, it came under a barrage of criticism, with White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre joining in.

“There are probably about 787 million things that I can say about this,” she said in her daily briefing Wednesday, a dig at Fox’s staggering $787 million settlement paid recently in a defamation suit over its broadcasting of 2020 election conspiracy theories.

Fox News, which had been airing Jean-Pierre’s briefing live, cut away moments after she began to discuss the issue.

The dust-up comes as Fox tries to chart a new course after firing its mega-star presenter and Trump-booster Tucker Carlson. Ratings in Carlson’s once hugely popular evening time slot have dropped.

CNN, which has long been fighting declining ratings, ran into its own Trump trouble last month.

It staged a heavily promoted town hall event with him, only for the Republican to use the live airtime to spread conspiracies, while the friendly audience jeered the CNN moderator.

That prompted an intense backlash within the network and helped hasten the departure of CNN’s already embattled chief executive Chris Licht on June 7.