On March 12, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his “Fireside Chat,” a regular radio broadcast that helped define his presidency. The Fireside Chat marked a turning point in presidential communication.
Roosevelt’s experiment didn’t set an immediate precedent. Eventually, President Ronald Reagan picked up the practice again, delivering his own weekly radio address. President Bill Clinton followed suit. President George W. Bush carried on the tradition in the form of a podcast. And President Barack Obama continues to release his own address on YouTube every week.
Clearly, using popular technology to talk directly to an audience rather than through the filter of news media is not a new development. But when Donald Trump’s presidential campaign launched “Trump Tower Live” this week, a daily talk show broadcast on Facebook Live, the headlines might have made you think the candidate already had his own TV network. But Trump has denied any interest in starting a media venture after the election.
“I have no interest in Trump TV,” Trump told a Cincinnati radio station this week. “I have a tremendous fan base. We have the most incredible people. But I just don’t have any interest in that. I have one interest, that’s on November 8th.”
Trump isn’t the only candidate to use Facebook Live as a campaign tool. Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein have all used it to broadcast rallies and question-and-answer sessions. With social media as a legitimate battleground in this presidential election, it seems natural that the campaigns would use Facebook Live.
The difference with the Trump campaign is that it is now putting out an actual show. Every weeknight until election day at 6:30 p.m ET, “Trump Tower Live” will feature a panel discussion with various campaign surrogates for 30 minutes.
“This is just an effort by us to reach out to you guys, give you the message straight from the campaign,” said host Cliff Sims as he opened the debut episode on Monday. “You don’t have to take it through the media filter and all the spin they put on it. You can hear it from us directly.”
It’s no secret that social media create echo chambers that let users avoid being exposed to ideas that they don’t agree with. The stronger a campaign’s grasp is on social media, the easier it is to control what information its supporters take in. Since they were broadcasted, Monday and Tuesday’s episodes of Trump Tower Live have amassed more than 1.5 million views.
If there’s one word that can describe the production quality of Trump Tower Live, it’s modest. The set is a small wooden table in the campaign war room in Trump Tower. The first few seconds of Monday’s broadcast show Sims flanked by campaign manager Kellyanne Conway and advisor Boris Epshteyn. Conway is staring into her phone.
“What’s going on?” asks Epshteyn, apparently frustrated that the show hadn’t started yet.
“Give it a second Boris, it’s alright,” Sims responds, just before a boom microphone dips in and out of the frame.
Someone off camera audibly counts down from 10 and the show begins, even though it has been live for more than 20 seconds at this point.
The lack of polish can partly be attributed to the simplicity of Facebook Live. It’s made for amateurs and is by no means a substitute for a broadcast studio.
Another explanation is the possibility that Trump Tower Live is not, in fact, a prototype of Trump TV. Perhaps it’s just a campaign tool that tries to take advantage of social media users’ selective attention. As long as the means exist, politicians will try to bypass the news media to deliver information directly to the public. Hillary Clinton, for example, didn’t hold a press conference for a period of more than 9 months. In that time, she won her party’s nomination and consistently led her opponent in the polls.
Speculation of Trump trying to launch a media company after the election is rather warranted. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has discussed the possibility with a banker who specializes in media deals, according to the Financial Times. And Trump clearly likes to keep media figures close to his campaign, with ex-Breitbart boss Stephen Bannon as the campaign CEO and Fox News’ Sean Hannity and the recently sacked Roger Ailes serving as informal advisors. And, Kushner himself is the owner of The New York Observer.
Time will tell if Trump Tower Live is just a campaign tool or an audition to American audiences. Trump, of course, denies it. To be fair, it’s probably not wise for a candidate to admit to post-election plans that don’t involve being president.