NEW YORK — In television news, a telephone interview is typically frowned upon. Donald Trump’s fondness for them is changing habits and causing consternation in newsrooms, while challenging political traditions.
Two organizations are circulating petitions to encourage Sunday morning political shows to hang up on Trump. Some prominent holdouts, like Fox’s Chris Wallace, refuse to do on-air phoners. Others argue that a phone interview is better than no interview at all.
Except in news emergencies, producers usually avoid phoners because television is a visual medium – a face-to-face discussion between a newsmaker and questioner is preferable to a picture of an anchor listening to a disembodied voice.
It’s easy to see why Trump likes them. There’s no travel or TV makeup involved; if he wishes to, Trump can talk to Matt Lauer without changing out of his pajamas. They often put an interviewer at a disadvantage, since it’s harder to interrupt or ask follow-up questions, and impossible to tell if a subject is being coached.
Face-to-face interviews let viewers see a candidate physically react to a tough question and think on his feet, said Chris Licht, executive producer of “CBS This Morning.” Sometimes that’s as important as what is being said.
Trump tends to take over phone interviews and can get his message out with little challenge, Wallace said.
“The Sunday show, in the broadcast landscape, I feel is a gold standard for probing interviews,” said Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday.” ”The idea that you would do a phone interview, not face-to-face or not by satellite, with a presidential candidate – I’d never seen it before, and I was quite frankly shocked that my competitors were doing it.”
Since Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, Wallace has conducted three in-person interviews with him on “Fox News Sunday,” and four via satellite.
Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” has done phoners with Trump but now said he’s decided to stick to in-person interviews on his Sunday show. He’s no absolutist, though.
“It’s a much better viewer experience when it’s in person,” Todd said. “Satellite and phoners are a little harder, there’s no doubt about it. But at the end of the day, you’ll take something over nothing.”
Morning news shows do phoners most frequently. At the outset of the campaign, Trump was ratings catnip. The ratings impact of a Trump interview has since settled down, but it’s still hard to turn him down. He’s the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s news.
There appear to be no network policies; different shows on the same network have different philosophies. Licht has turned Trump down for phoners on CBS but concedes there may be exceptions for breaking news. “CBS This Morning,” in fact, aired Trump commenting by phone following Tuesday’s attack in Belgium.
Since the campaign began, Trump has appeared for 29 phone interviews on the five Sunday political panel shows, according to the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America. Through last Sunday, ABC’s “This Week” has done it 10 times, CBS’ “Face the Nation” seven and six times each on “Meet the Press” and CNN’s “State of the Union.”
On Sunday, Trump phoned in an 11th time to “This Week,” calling from Florida. The program repeatedly flashed a stock Trump photo while the candidate demanded an overhaul of NATO, blamed rival Ted Cruz for the bitter feud targeting each other’s wife and complained about the Republican Party’s delegate selection process.
None of the news shows have done phoners with Cruz, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, said Media Matters, which is urging that the practice be discontinued. Cruz and Clinton declined ABC’s invitation to speak by phone or in person for the network’s most recent Sunday program.
The activist group MomsRising said the disparity “sends the message that some candidates can play by different rules, without consequences, and that’s just un-American.” A study by mediaQuant and The New York Times estimated that Trump has received the equivalent of $1.9 billion in free advertising given the media attention paid to his campaign.
A Trump spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment.
What’s unclear is whether other candidates were denied opportunities given to Trump.
CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker said Trump opponents frequently turn down interview requests. During an appearance on CNN last week, former GOP candidate Carly Fiorina complained about media attention paid to Trump, leading Anderson Cooper to shoot back: “Donald Trump returned phone calls and was willing to do interviews, which was something your campaign, frankly, was unwilling to do.”
Cruz spokeswoman Catherine Frazier tweeted last week that she saw Trump being interviewed via phone on “Fox & Friends” a day after Cruz was told that he couldn’t do a phone interview with the show.
Fox said that since then, “Fox & Friends” has offered to conduct a phone interview with Cruz five times and has been turned down each time. Cruz did appear in the studio Wednesday. Frazier did not return requests for comment.
NBC’s Todd believes that complaints about phoners are a surrogate for people who want to blame the media for Trump’s success.
“You’re shooting the messenger while you’re ignoring what he is tapping into,” he said. “It becomes a little silly when you look at the bigger picture here. The media is getting criticized for interviewing Donald Trump. If we weren’t questioning him, we’d be criticized for not questioning him.”
For years, cautious candidates have tended to be stingy with press access. Trump is the complete opposite. In a fast-moving information age, he may be changing the expectations for how often a candidate submits to interviews.
Todd doesn’t believe it’s a coincidence that he’s had more access to Clinton during the past six weeks than he had during the six years she was in the Obama administration. Both Clinton and Cruz appeared in phone interviews following the Belgium attacks.
“Trump’s opponents fall into two camps: Those who complain and continue to get crushed by the media wave, or those who grab a surfboard and try to ride it,” said Mark McKinnon, veteran Republican political operative and co-host of Showtime’s political road show, “The Circus.”
Associated Press writer Stephen Braun in Washington contributed to this report.