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President Trump’s cable news obsession, explained

Markets Open On First Week Of Trump Presidency Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At 6:30 am Eastern time on Monday, CNN’s political director, David Chalian, was on air relaying the latest polling on President Donald Trump’s administration.

"What about that travel ban policy? How's the country reacting to that? A majority are opposed. Slim majority. Fifty-three percent of Americans oppose the travel ban, 47 percent in favor."

Thirty minutes later, President Donald Trump fired off a tweet.

Trump — as he often is — was watching.

His obsession with cable news is well established. During the campaign, he once interrupted an interview with the Washington Post five times to comment on what was airing on a nearby television. More recently, he stood in front of the CIA’s memorial wall and riffed on cable news’s unflattering portrayal of the crowd size at his presidential inauguration ceremony.

Trump is watching cable from sunup to sundown, according to the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman:

He rises before 6 a.m., watches television tuned to a cable channel first in the residence, and later in a small dining room in the West Wing, and looks through the morning newspapers: The New York Times, The New York Post and now The Washington Post ... Mr. Trump has the television — and his old, unsecured Android phone, to the protests of some of his aides — to keep him company.

To some media observers, his fixation is a byproduct of a career in entertainment, where life is dictated by ratings and press coverage. Trump’s team likes to say the celebrity media training has served him well in politics. But it is not Trump’s cable news obsession that makes him unique — plenty of presidents have wanted to know how they make out in the headlines.

“What seems to be different about Trump, is that he seems to be the passive consumer,” said David Greenberg, a media history professor at Rutgers University. “He sees something about flag burning on Fox and tweets about it, and then it takes him off message. That’s not something presidents typically do. They might elevate their message, but they wouldn’t act like a fan or an ordinary viewer.”

A lot of Trump’s talking points are dictated by cable news

Trump’s television habits have become so familiar and trackable that morning cable news anchors have begun to acknowledge his viewership live on air. Every Trump tweet has an origin story — and the ones that seem most random typically have cable news beginnings:

  • On January 26, Trump tweeted that Chelsea Manning was an “ungrateful traitor” for calling President Barack Obama a “weak leader,” after Obama pardoned her. As CNN’s Brian Stelter pointed out, Fox News had used the same phrasing just 14 minutes prior.
  • On January 24, Trump began tweeting about violent crime in Chicago. Just an hour before, Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor was listing off the same statistics, the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone noted.
  • When CNN’s New Day began discussing Russian cyberattacks allegedly interfering in the American election process on December 16, Trump tweeted in direct response:

The show’s host, Chris Cuomo, responded to Trump on air, noting, “Good morning Mr. President-elect, we hope you are getting some good information out of our coverage.”

It’s not unusual for a president to monitor media coverage. President Lyndon B. Johnson famously had a bank of televisions in the office so he could have all the biggest news networks playing at once, and President Richard Nixon used to write long memos to his aides about the media’s negative portrayal of him. “Any president who says they are not concerned with the press they are getting is not talking straight,” said Josh Scacco, a political scientist at Purdue University.

Trump has taken on the role of White House communication director — and he’s doing it on Twitter

Filtering media coverage is usually the job of the White House communications director, which in the Trump administration also happens to be the dual title of press secretary Sean Spicer. It’s an organization that keeps the president above the fray.

But Trump doesn’t appear to care about that distinction, and he has picked up some of these duties in a distinctively Trumpian fashion, responding to reports erratically, recklessly — and often on Twitter.

“[Twitter] is a medium for short emotional bursts that are not reflective, which is Trump’s specialty,” Greenberg said. “It suits him perfectly. He just lashes out with this stuff.”

It’s a tested strategy. Trump is swinging his counterpunches off CNN, NBC, and ABC, preemptively inoculating his audience from potential attacks against his administration — something that worked for him during the primaries and general election.

“Donald Trump understands that with the media world fragmented, people have gone into the echo chambers, and the way to keep your base intact is to go into your echo chambers and deliver the messages,” Scacco said.

But he isn’t just feeding his messages to friendly conservative outlets; he is also getting his talking points from Fox News — a network his base trusts and is familiar with. “It’s perhaps hard to know who is setting the agenda,” Anne Pluta, a political science professor at Rowan University, said.

Trump knows Fox News has a good hold on his base

Four days into his presidency, Trump publicly endorsed Fox News over “Fake News CNN” in a tweet congratulating the network’s high ratings over inauguration weekend. That’s not normal.

George W. Bush is the only other Republican president to govern in the era of Fox News, which was established in 1996. He too was undoubtedly partial to the conservative cable network — just not as candidly. According to New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, who wrote a biography of former Fox News executive Roger Ailes, Vice President Dick Cheney used to privately order that hotel room televisions be set to Fox, but the Bush administration “didn’t blatantly tell Americans to trust Fox over CNN,” Sherman tweeted.

Fox News has become increasingly friendly toward Trump since the primaries. When the Republican establishment consolidated around Trump, Fox News, which has always had a strong read of the conservative base, went along with it. Megyn Kelly — whom Trump feuded with for months during the campaign — has now left the network for NBC. Fox News’s change in tone gave Trump’s world the impression that they were in charge of the network, Sherman reported.

But the relationship is more symbiotic than that. Just as much as Fox is picking up the White House’s political messaging, Trump too is maneuvering the national discussion around cable news, whether sharing Bill O’Reilly’s data points or calling CNN’s reporters liars.

He's the target audience. They, often, are just targets.